Erick Erickson is editor of the Resurgent.
Until morale improves, the primary challenges against establishment Republicans from upstart conservatives will continue. And morale will not improve until Republicans replace Mitch McConnell as Senate majority leader.
Make no mistake, Tuesday's Republican Senate primary in Alabama centered on McConnell's failures. Stephen K. Bannon, on television before Roy Moore's victory, declared McConnell guilty of "economic hate crimes" against the middle class. There is delightful timing in Moore winning his primary battle against the McConnell-funded Sen. Luther Strange on the very day that McConnell surrendered in the health-care fight.
Since becoming majority leader, McConnell (Ky.) has repeatedly sided with more moderate and liberal Republican senators at the expense of those whom the base supports; Ted Cruz (Tex.), Mike Lee (Utah), Rand Paul (Ky.) and others have routinely been victims of McConnell-generated negative press. But then nothing happens. Only five federal judges and Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch have been confirmed by the Senate; two of those five will be on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, which, not just coincidentally, oversees Kentucky. After declaring the Senate would rip out Obamacare "root and branch," the Senate leader failed to do that. And then McConnell suggested President Trump might have something to do with the problem.
McConnell has long maintained that his position is secure as long as he can keep a majority of Senate Republicans happy; that he can ignore complaints from the base and conservative angst. So conservatives set out to change the playing field. In 2010, while McConnell put resources behind moderate Charlie Crist's Senate campaign, conservatives backed Marco Rubio. The National Republican Senatorial Committee also spent money trying to stop Ken Buck in Colorado's Republican primary. When that failed, the committee spent more helping Carly Fiorina in California than it did helping Buck in Colorado. Buck came quite close to winning. In 2012 and 2014, the establishment Republicans figured out how to fight back against conservative upstarts, successfully winning most primary challenges. McConnell's Senate Leadership Fund showered establishment-friendly moderates with cash and launched preemptive attacks on conservative candidates to define them negatively.
The response from the base? Burn it all down. Base voters backed Trump, and some of the biggest applause lines at recent Trump events have been his attacks on the incompetence of Republican leaders, including McConnell. By opening up an Alabama Senate seat, Trump’s appointment of Jeff Sessions as attorney general paved the way for an anti-establishment revival. Moore made McConnell’s failures a centerpiece of his campaign, and the crowds ate it up. Moore’s rhetoric was so strident — and successful — that Strange wound up having no choice but to run against McConnell, too.
Many people consider Trump supporters fools, but they were savvy enough to understand that the president’s support for Strange was weak at best. When Trump showed up to campaign in Alabama for Strange, Moore supporters went to cheer on their president and boo McConnell. At separate rallies, Trump loyalists such as Bannon, Sarah Palin and Sebastian Gorka rallied the crowd to Moore against the establishment forces who obstruct Trump’s agenda. Completely cynical about American politics, Trump’s voters understood what was happening. The president is forced to work with McConnell and must play the game. But they believe in their hearts that Trump would much prefer a person such as Moore — someone who could be counted on to fight back against McConnell in the Senate.
So on Tuesday, Trump’s supporters likely delivered to the Senate a man Trump publicly opposed but that his voters believe he privately wants or, at least, needs. Their motivation had far more to do with ending McConnell’s tenure as Senate Republican leader than passing any specific piece of legislation. Now conservatives will go find more candidates whose campaign pitch is anti-McConnell, not pro-Trump. The primary challenges will continue, with new proof that they can succeed, until the base concludes McConnell has either become helpful or gotten out of the way. This is the beginning, not the end.