Roy Moore didn’t travel to Washington on Wednesday to kiss and make up with the Republican leaders who opposed his nomination to fill the Senate seat formerly held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
He came to continue the revolt.
Moore didn’t meet with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) or stop by the White House to make nice with the forces that tried to defeat him. Instead, he huddled with Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist and one of Moore’s most outspoken advocates, and spent time in the office of a House Republican from Alabama.
The latest skirmish in the escalating war for the soul of the GOP was more than awkward: It was a window into what might be coming for Republicans next year, when hard-right conservatives emboldened by Moore’s runoff victory last week against Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.) are likely to target still more establishment incumbents.
It also has immediate and potentially dire implications for the GOP’s slim working majority in the Senate. Although Moore still faces a general election on Dec. 12, he is widely seen as the front-runner in that race, given Alabama’s heavy conservative tilt.
The growing hostilities threaten the effort by Senate GOP leaders to foster enough unity in their ranks to pass a sweeping rewrite of the nation’s tax laws — which they are wagering is the only thing left that can reverse the political damage the party has sustained this year. Moore is seen as a wild card who could complicate, if not derail, that task.
The controversial former judge’s Washington debut as the Alabama GOP nominee was highly unusual. His trip was a surprise to many party officials, who said they did not hear from him or his team in advance.
Rather than meeting with McConnell, Moore was on the House side of the Capitol on Wednesday. In a brief interview as he left the office of Rep. Robert B. Aderholt in the afternoon, Moore said he had no meetings set up with McConnell or members of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate majority’s campaign arm, which spent millions trying to defeat Moore in the primary.
“Nothing confirmed,” he said casually, as an aide tried to head off questions. Asked why he decided to come to Washington, Moore simply replied: “Beautiful place.”
In the evening, Moore met with the NRSC chairman, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), according to a Republican close to Gardner and a second Republican familiar with the talk who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the closed-door session. Moore’s campaign declined to comment.
The meeting appeared to be hastily arranged, given Moore’s afternoon remark and Gardner’s uncertainty earlier in the day, as he and other Republicans struggled to save face.
“I haven’t looked at the schedule — I don’t know that yet,” Gardner said around midday, when asked whether he planned to meet with Moore.
Even Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) was left in the dark.
“Once he calls me, I’ll meet with him,” said Shelby. He said he had not spoken to Moore since his Sept. 26 victory over Strange.
Shelby, McConnell, Gardner and much of the mainstream wing of the party aggressively backed Strange, who was appointed to fill the Sessions seat. So did Trump.
But Moore’s pitch as a strict Christian conservative and Washington outsider, which was bolstered by support from Bannon, proved to be the better fit for the restive primary electorate that had grown frustrated with Republican lawmakers.
After eight months in which the Republican-controlled government fell short of its seven-year goal of dismantling the Affordable Care Act and failed to produce any major legislation, party officials are bracing for a similar backlash in other places across the country.
“We want outcomes. And clearly not getting to a point where we think we’re moving health-care in the right direction was very disappointing,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).
While Strange’s most prominent backers promptly endorsed Moore after he won, he has shown considerably less interest in aligning with them.
There are strong hints of the company Moore plans to keep if he wins in December. On election night, he named three senators most known for taking defiant stands against GOP leaders, saying that he had spoken with each before giving his victory speech: Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.).
Moore’s itinerary on his first trip to Washington reflected the theme, with his Wednesday evening plans expected to include Lee and Cruz, and a private meeting planned with Paul on Capitol Hill on Thursday.
Former South Carolina Republican senator Jim DeMint, a longtime McConnell foil now running the Conservative Partnership Institute, plans to meet Thursday with Moore to talk policy, said several people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private plans.
One of the reasons Republicans spent so much money to defeat Moore was a fear that his views would make it harder to strike compromises needed to pass legislative priorities such as tax cuts.
“Good luck moving President Trump’s growth agenda forward,” Scott Reed, the senior political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said last week after the election. “The deadline for tax reform just became December 12th.”
By some measures, Republican prospects for passing a bill by then are slim, given the existing challenges associated with wrangling enough support among current GOP lawmakers who, even without Moore in the mix, have shown a tendency to disagree on major policy decisions.
“I’ve maintained all along, contrary to some of our colleagues who have felt that tax reform’s going to be a lot easier than health care, that tax reform is going to be enormously complex and challenging,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), a top McConnell lieutenant.
At Moore’s meeting with Bannon on Wednesday morning, the two men compared notes on messaging and political strategy for the coming general-election fight against Democratic nominee Doug Jones.
“The judge obviously really likes and respects Steve, and Steve really likes and respects the judge,” said Andrew Surabian, senior adviser to the conservative advocacy group Great America Alliance, who attended the meeting Wednesday.
Some Republicans worry that Moore is a general-election liability who could alienate moderate voters with his controversial positions and past. He was twice ousted as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court — once for defying the U.S. Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage and another time for refusing to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments installed at the courthouse.
Bannon and other Trump loyalists are bent on repeating their success in Alabama in some of the 2018 contests already taking shape. The White House has also signaled hostility toward several incumbent senators.
In remarks to Republican donors Tuesday, Vice President Pence’s chief of staff, Nick Ayers, endorsed a “purge” of GOP lawmakers disloyal to Trump’s agenda. Politico first reported the comments.
Mica Mosbacher, a Republican fundraiser who attended the event, said many attendees agreed with the sentiment.
“They are extremely disappointed in the do-nothing Congress,” said Mosbacher, who is affiliated with America First Policies, a pro-Trump organization.
But in some corners of Capitol Hill, Ayers’s remarks were met with a different response. Asked whether the comments amounted to an effective strategy for the party, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) responded, “Probably not,” with a tone suggesting the answer should be obvious.
But in a yet another sign that not all Republican senators are on the same page, one of Scott’s colleagues reacted very differently.
“I can tell you that people are upset that Republican senators are not backing the agenda of this president,” said Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), a Trump ally.
Moore’s ascent and the broader GOP war also jeopardizes Trump’s attempt to build a bipartisan agreement to protect thousands of young undocumented immigrants from deportation, according to several Republican aides on Capitol Hill.
While GOP lawmakers met with Trump this week to talk about framing an agreement on conservative terms, congressional aides said more Republicans may still be wary of backing a deal on that issue because they fear primary repercussions if they align against the far-right wing of the party.
White House officials announced no plans for a Moore visit. Aides did not expect that to change, although they noted that the president is busy with the federal response to Las Vegas and recent hurricanes.
While Moore has been highly critical of McConnell, he has been warm to Trump, even as the president campaigned for his opponent.
McConnell’s office confirmed that Moore and the majority leader spoke briefly by phone the day after Moore’s victory.
But on Wednesday, others were getting face time. Aderholt, after meeting with Moore in his office Wednesday, played down the significance of the gathering.
“Just a meet-and-greet,” he said.
Michael Scherer and Robert Costa contributed to this report.