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Inside McConnell’s slow-motion Alabama train wreck


Inside McConnell's slow-motion Alabama train wreck
POLITICO - TOP Stories  /  krobillard@politico.com (Kevin Robillard)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is pictured. | Getty

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's Senate Leadership Fund believed Moore's hardcore conservative views limited his appeal to a minority of the Republican primary electorate. | Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The Senate majority leader tried to defuse Alabama's special election in March. It only got worse from there.

In mid-March, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called freshly appointed Sen. Luther Strange with a pressing political question: Should McConnell or President Donald Trump urge Alabama's governor not to call a special election for Strange's seat in 2017?

The previous governor, Robert Bentley, had appointed Strange to his seat and set a special election for November 2018 before resigning in a sex scandal. But new Gov. Kay Ivey was under local pressure to move the election forward, and McConnell was concerned it would distract the GOP amid efforts to repeal Obamacare and pass sweeping tax legislation in 2017. Strange told McConnell not to worry — Ivey was a friend and political ally, Strange said, and they didn't need to worry about her cutting short Strange's time in office.

The next month, Ivey moved the special election to December, setting off an improbable series of one-after-another political gut punches to McConnell and his conference that ended with Alabama electing its first Democratic senator in a quarter-century, the GOP Senate majority shrinking to just 51 seats, and Democrats hopeful of winning back the Senate in 2018.

"It's all one big self-inflicted wound," said Josh Holmes, McConnell's former chief of staff and one of his top political lieutenants, who described McConnell's conversation with Strange. "This election never even needed to happen."

Questionable strategic decisions by the GOP establishment, festering (but underestimated) anti-McConnell sentiment within the party base and finally Republican Roy Moore's alleged relationships with teenagers all compounded the effect of Ivey's decision — which she argued was required by state law — over the course of the year.

The quicker election set up a choice for McConnell and his political apparatus, which includes the National Republican Senatorial Committee and a big-spending super PAC, Senate Leadership Fund. Should they treat Strange, picked by Bentley and in the Senate for all of two months, as an incumbent? That would prompt millions of dollars in support from both outside groups. It would also mean hardball tactics to keep other candidates out of the race, such as threatening to blacklist consultants who worked for Republicans other than Strange.

But Holmes says there was no real debate. Strange was a sitting senator, loyally backing the president's agenda. He was an incumbent.

"This was an autopilot decision," said Holmes. "When you have a two-seat majority, you don't throw a sitting senator to the wolves."

Suddenly, potential candidates started dropping out, including some who could have worked well with the party under different circumstances. Reps. Robert Aderholt and Bradley Byrne both decided not to run. Del Marsh, the top Republican in Alabama's state Senate, traveled to Washington to meet with conservative groups who might support him. But Marsh quickly encountered resistance, with national consultants saying they couldn't work for him.

"We actually had [firms] that we thought were going to sign on with if I got into the race, and they started getting phone calls stating they could not do the race because of conversations with the [NRSC]," Marsh told POLITICO days before announcing he would not run.

Some GOP consultants, who didn't want to be named criticizing McConnell's political team, pinpointed the threats against strategists who opposed Strange as a fatal mistake. Strange had obvious vulnerabilities. He was appointed by former Bentley in what some contended was a crooked deal, after Strange stopped state legislators from impeaching the governor.

"What kind of vetting did they do on Luther Strange?" taunted Andy Surabian, a top adviser to former White House strategist Steve Bannon. "Did they even bother to Google him?" (Bannon and Surabian backed Moore in the first of a series of anti-incumbent challenges around the country.)

The pre-primary maneuvering left Strange and two firebrand Republicans in the race: Rep. Mo Brooks, a favorite of tea party groups, and Moore, who had been ousted twice as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court for refusing to obey federal court rulings.

Marsh saw then what few did. He told POLITICO that he warned D.C. operatives about the controversial Moore's appeal.

"They better be careful what they do, because they could end up, at the end of the day, literally getting a candidate that could cause some problems," he said. "I don't know what'll happen, but Roy Moore is a popular figure in the state, and I truly believe if you had a runoff between Roy Moore and Luther, I think Moore would win."

Senate Leadership Fund made a different read of the electorate — one that was disproven when Moore clinched the Republican nomination months later.

The McConnell-aligned super PAC believed Moore's hardcore conservative views limited his appeal to a minority of the Republican primary electorate. They figured Strange's likeliest path through the GOP primary was a one-on-one matchup with Moore in a runoff.

So began a massive, multimillion dollar ad blitz targeting Brooks, who was receiving quiet advice and backing from Bannon, then still in the White House. The ads torpedoed Brooks, who earned just 20 percent of the first-round GOP primary vote.

But they did not provide an overwhelming boost to Strange, who advanced, in second place, to a runoff with Moore. And by this time, Strange was tied with McConnell in voters' minds.

McConnell Senate Leadership Fund ultimately spent $8 million on the primary, and the NRSC kicked in $400,000. When Brooks first went on the warpath against the McConnell-linked spending, it looks like a desperation play from a third-place candidate. McConnell had never been successfully deployed as a bogeyman before. But his approval rating was falling — by Tuesday's elections, just 16 percent of voters viewed him favorably, according to exit polls — and Moore adopted the same tactics to deflect pro-Strange advertising as the work of Washington puppeteers. One rueful Republican strategist described Senate Leadership Fund's millions supporting Strange as practically "an in-kind contribution to the Roy Moore campaign" given McConnell's standing.

"Join with me to defeat the Washington crowd led by Mitch McConnell, who attempted to buy the vote of the people of Alabama with millions of money off a PAC in Washington," Moore said the night he and Strange advanced to the GOP runoff.

Moore beat Strange to the Republican nomination by 9 points, and McConnell made a gesture of peace that night in September. "Senate Republicans will be as committed to keeping Alabama's Senate seat in Republican hands with Roy Moore as we were with Luther Strange," the majority leader said in a statement.

That changed on Nov. 9, when The Washington Post published accounts of women who alleged Moore pursued relationships with them when he was in his 30s and they were teenagers, including one who said Moore undressed her and touched her sexually when she was 14. The NRSC and SLF quickly dropped their support for Moore, blaming Bannon for boosting him.

While they cut Moore loose and excoriated his patron in public, behind the scenes, Senate Republicans worked furiously to find a way to do more and boot Moore from the race. Because military ballots were already printed and in the mail, their options were limited and untested — but they eventually settled on an off-the-wall potential solution.

Based on a precedent from a 1981 state legislative election, they believed the governor of Alabama could call a new special election if Strange resigned. McConnell allies sent the idea to the White House for legal vetting, hoping Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and senior Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby could convince Strange and Ivey to execute the plan.

But the plan was never tested. Once again, Ivey insisted the election would go forward in December. Bannon stuck with Moore, and Trump embraced him, eventually urging Alabamians to elect Moore in a series of tweets and statements before the election, including some at a rally in nearby Pensacola, Florida.

It wasn't enough. Jones flipped Strange's Senate seat to the Democratic Party Tuesday night. At the least, the slow-motion nightmare was over — but more Republican Senate primaries loom on the horizon in 2018, and the responses were predictable.

Team Bannon blamed McConnell for not backing Moore.

"Mitch McConnell and his establishment allies got the Democrat that they wanted in Alabama and are now threatening and openly defying President Trump's agenda," Surabian said.

Team McConnell blamed Bannon for backing Moore.

"He's proven beyond a shadow of a doubt he has no capability to run a U.S. Senate race," Holmes said of Bannon, who has supported anti-incumbent challengers in Arizona, Nevada and elsewhere. "If he's capable of losing the reddest state in the nation, he's capable of losing anywhere."



Original Article: https://www.politico.com/story/2017/12/13/alabama-special-senate-election-mitch-mcconnell-222569

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