Tuesday represented a brutal 24 hours for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
First, there was the Tuesday announcement that his conference would not proceed with a vote on the Graham-Cassidy healthcare plan. It all but assured that Republicans will not pass any major legislation on healthcare during the entirety of President Donald Trump’s first year in office, while they controlled both branches of Congress and the White House.
Then came more bad news: Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee — a close McConnell ally and reliable vote — announced he would retire at the end of his term, ensuring a wild Republican primary battle that could, in all likelihood, leave McConnell with another combative member of his own conference.
Later Tuesday, it became virtually assured that he would have another ultra-combative member join his conference. Far-right former judge Roy Moore, who ran an almost entirely anti-McConnell campaign, defeated McConnell’s preferred candidate, Sen. Luther Strange, in the Alabama Republican Senate primary.
Pro-McConnell forces poured in tens of millions of dollars to help Strange pull out a primary win, even convincing Trump to campaign for the incumbent senator, who was appointed to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ seat earlier this year.
Trump endorsed Strange and provided a number of supportive tweets. But at his Huntsville, Alabama, rally for Strange, Trump tried his best to distance Strange from McConnell and even said that he may “have made a mistake” in wading into a GOP primary. He said at the Friday rally that if Moore won, he is “going to be here campaigning like hell for him.”
Meanwhile, all of the biggest pro-Trump forces in the GOP went all-in on Moore. Figures such as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former White House staffer Sebastian Gorka, and former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, now back at the helm of Breitbart, went to Alabama to campaign for Moore.
And they all campaigned hard against McConnell and the GOP establishment.
“Mitch McConnell and his permanent political class is the most corrupt, incompetent group of individuals in this country!” Bannon said at a Monday rally. “They think you’re a pack of morons. They think you’re nothing but rubes. They have no interest at all in what you have to say, what you have to think or what you want to do.”
After Moore won, Trump quickly announced his support for the GOP nominee, who will now face Doug Jones, a Democrat and former US attorney, in the general election. But Trump simultaneously started deleting his tweets in support of Strange.
“Spoke to Roy Moore of Alabama last night for the first time,” Trump tweeted Wednesday morning. “Sounds like a really great guy who ran a fantastic race. He will help to #MAGA!”
Trump’s relationship with McConnell has been cool at best in recent months, with the president pointing to McConnell as the reason for the GOP’s legislative failures in his first year. As Axios reported Wednesday, Trump has even physically mocked McConnell in private, slumping his shoulders and providing “lethargic body language.”
The trifecta of a Strange loss, Corker retirement, and healthcare failure provides the anti-establishment wing of the GOP with plenty of fuel: proof they have the advantage over establishment leadership, an additional window to elect the candidate of their choice, and a legislative disaster to rile up angry voters.
Already, the pro-Trump outsider forces, in celebrating Moore’s win, have looked to Tennessee, Mississippi, Nevada, and Arizona as races where they can defeat or unseat the establishment.
“If you’re an incumbent, you have to assume the wind is against you,” Tom Ingram, a GOP consultant and longtime adviser to Corker, told The Washington Post. “If you do run, you take nothing for granted and leave nothing on the table. You start out with one big strike against you: You’re an incumbent Republican senator.”
Danny Tarkanian, the right-wing challenger to Republican Sen. Dean Heller in Nevada, told The Post that Moore’s win changes everything for outsider candidates.
“People everywhere are outraged with the swamp, but there has been hesitation in some states among people who are thinking about it,” he said. “They wondered whether these senators can be beat. This changes all of that.”
Pro-McConnell forces have pushed back on the narrative. Josh Holmes, McConnell’s former chief of staff, told The Post that there will be “a rush to overanalyze” Moore’s victory and what it means for both the establishment and the party’s far-right wing. Holmes pointed to McConnell’s support for Strange, even as the senator’s hopes looked bleak, as proof that the Senate majority leader “will go to war for Republican senators, come hell or high water.”
“A lot of folks out there would have cut bait when an election turns, but that’s not who McConnell is,” Holmes said.
Pointing to Bannon and Breitbart, the far-right news site he leads, Holmes said he expects “a whole lot of people who had nothing to do with the result taking credit for Alabama.”
“It will lead to more friendly fire in our party, which will make it tougher, not easier, to pass health care and taxes,” he continued. “What we need is cohesion.”
For McConnell, the brutal 24-hour period was capped with what is for him, a ray of light. Republican leaders released details of their tax reform plan after months of anticipation. It was the opening salvo in what will be a substantial battle to enact the legislation, which, if it passes, would be the first major legislative accomplishment in the Trump era.
As McConnell said after the Graham-Cassidy effort was pronounced dead Tuesday, “Where we go from here is tax reform.”
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