Last night, the Republican Party got its first break in over a year.
The defeat of Roy Moore in Alabama may sting for a while, but it may just be the wakeup call that the GOP needed. To lose a Senate seat in one of the most conservative states in the South is quite an accomplishment. There will be plenty of blame and finger-pointing to go around, but ultimately the fault lies with Roy Moore himself, along with the people who elevated him to the nomination.
The candidate was obviously never properly vetted by Republicans, but if the Washington Post could find a handful of women from Moore’s past, why couldn’t his Republican primary adversaries? Perhaps Moore was considered untouchable in Alabama conservative circles for his high-profile resistance to the removal of the Ten Commandments monument and the implementation of same-sex marriage, but, in truth, these were examples of judicial activism that should not have been applauded by people who support the rule of law. There are ways to resist bad rulings, but Moore’s actions were not appropriate for his position.
Even beyond the obvious, there were signs of skeletons in Moore’s closet if Republicans had cared to look. In 2002, amid the Ten Commandments controversy, the Montgomery Advertiser hinted that Moore’s associates had stories to tell, but were biding their time. “Some of those who worked with Moore roll their eyes when asked about him but keep their mouths shut,” Todd Kleffman wrote. “There are plenty of stories to tell, the longtime secretaries, parole officials and lawyers said, but not on the record and not now, while Moore sits atop the state court system and controls its purse strings.”
Part of the blame for Moore also lies with former Gov. Robert Bentley (R-Ala.), who appointed another weak candidate, Luther Strange, to fill the Senate seat of Jeff Sessions when he was tapped to become attorney general by Donald Trump. Strange was tainted by Bentley’s corruption as well as purported ties to the Republican establishment. Even though President Trump endorsed Strange, Moore attacked him by linking him to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). In a healthy party, ties to party leaders are a good thing, not a liability.
Steve Bannon and the anti-establishment wing of the Republican Party also share the blame. In recent years, the Republican establishment has been subject to its own derangement syndrome in which many members of the Republican base put party leaders on a level with Democrats. This intra-party feuding led directly to the nomination of both Donald Trump and Roy Moore in primaries where a main qualification for many Republican voters was that candidates should be from outside the Republican mainstream.
While both Trump and Moore were Republican outsiders, they were also outside the American mainstream. Donald Trump eked out a victory because enough voters in the right places saw him as less threatening than Hillary Clinton. In Moore’s case, his questionable record combined with the allegations of sexual misconduct and a bevy of embarrassing statements and ultimately turned much of his own party against him. Even President Trump, at a September rally for Strange, expressed doubts about Moore’s ability to win a general election.
The lesson that Republicans should learn from Roy Moore is that “at least he isn’t Hillary” only works when a candidate is running against Hillary. It doesn’t work when the opposition candidate is Doug Jones, a decent man with a good record, and the Republican candidate is a man who seemed to think fondly of the slavery era in a state where blacks make up more than a quarter of the population.
In the past few years, Republicans seem to have forgotten the Buckley Rule that conservative voters should nominate the most conservative candidate who can win. If conservative voters take this lesson to heart, they will nominate decent, sane, mainstream conservatives in the primaries that will be held in a few months. If they truly learn the lesson of Roy Moore, they will reject candidates from Steve Bannon’s crackpot wing of the party.
Roy Moore’s loss may have come at just the right time for the party. Many signs are pointing to a Democrat wave in 2018. It may already be too late to stop the Democrat landslide, but if Republicans look for candidates that appeal to voters outside the anti-establishment wing of the GOP they may be able to prevent a total wipeout and at least maintain control of the Senate.
In the short term, there will be anger against the Republicans who crossed party lines to vote for Doug Jones or who cast their ballots for a write-in candidate. If Republican voters don’t insist on good candidates, they will continue getting candidates who rely on the “at least he’s not [insert Democrat here” argument. Rather than betraying the Republican Party and traditional Republican principles, the Republicans who had the moral courage to rebel against a deeply flawed and embarrassing candidate may have actually saved the Republican Party.
Originally published on The Resurgent