WASHINGTON – Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell lost just about every way possible on Tuesday.
The Kentucky Republican had to abandon, again, an effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act amid an uprising from the more moderate wing of the GOP caucus. Then he learned that one of his most influential Republican chairmen would not run for reelection next year, setting up a potentially divisive race to succeed the senator.
Finally, before 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, McConnell suffered the final indignity: His preferred candidate in Alabama, Sen. Luther Strange, lost the GOP nomination in embarrassing fashion to a conservative insurgent who vowed that his victory would send a message that McConnell and his allies should “run scared for a while.”
While no stranger to defeat in the past – he spent eight years as minority leader – McConnell’s string of losses in such a short timespan Tuesday punctured much of his well-crafted image as the consummate insider who could deliver.
Each blow had its own unusual circumstances, with President Trump’s own erratic performance playing a role, but McConnell’s failures came in nearly every facet of congressional leadership.
Roy Moore’s resounding win in the Alabama special election, after McConnell’s allies spent more than $10 million on Strange’s behalf, served as the first time Senate Republicans suffered a major defeat from a right-flank challenger in more than five years. Coupled with the retirement announcement of Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), it means that GOP incumbents will face more challenges next year and that McConnell’s promise to help them fend off insurgents will not carry the same weight.
On the legislative front, where McConnell was considered a master of the Senate, the leader could not herd his Republican colleagues or craft a parliamentary process to meet their competing needs. The result was an embarrassing failure to do what they promised voters they would for seven years: Repeal and replace former president Obama’s signature health care law.
It left some hard-charging conservatives furious about the outcome.
“There is a complete lack of congressional leadership and no accountability to get results,” said Sen. David Perdue (R., Ga.), first elected in 2014 and a critic of senior GOP senators for abandoning the repeal effort. “From the get go, three Republican Senate chairmen failed to support our efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare as we have all promised to do.”
McConnell’s inner circle did not even try to sugarcoat the failures and what they meant for Republicans heading into the 2018 midterm elections. Moore’s victory, according to the leader’s advisers, is a direct result of congressional Republican’s failure to repeal a health law they vowed to replace for seven years, nor deliver any other tangible legislative victory in the first eight months of Trump’s presidency.
“It should be a wake-up call to every Republican. The deep dissatisfaction among the base with the pace of the Trump agenda is very real,” Josh Holmes, McConnell’s 2014 campaign manager and still close adviser, said Tuesday. Holmes said the entire party must now unify and deliver on their vow to overhaul the tax code so voters will see more money in their pockets.
“It’s the team ball concept,” Holmes said, explaining that Republican voters tune out explanations for the stalled agenda. “The frustration is, get it done.”
What made Alabama potentially different, and could be a sign of things to come, was the degree to which Moore and his supporters tried to turn McConnell into a boogeyman within his own party.
On Tuesday, before the election results were official, most Senate Republicans remained staunchly behind McConnell – who, next June, is slated to become the longest serving GOP leader in Senate history. He has won eight straight leadership elections by acclamation, with no challenger, and none appears on the horizon in the near term.
His colleagues say McConnell is willing to absorb the criticism that conservative activists fire at him, particularly if it keeps the friendly fire away from rank-and-file Republicans.
“Being the spear-catcher for the conference is part of the responsibility of being in leadership, and Senator McConnell, as he likes to point out, is a big boy,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the majority whip. “He can take it.”
But one thing that could hamper McConnell’s long-term standing would be if he became a real albatross to his own incumbents in primary elections ahead. Two years ago this week John Boehner (R., Ohio) announced his resignation as House speaker because even close supporters feared voting for him because conservative activists had grown to despise Boehner.
Sen. Richard Shelby (R., Ala.) saw McConnell as a tangential issue to Alabama voters, who know Moore well from his controversial record as a staunch social conservative on the state Supreme Court.
“I don’t think McConnell is the only issue there. Roy Moore is a unique individual,” said Shelby, who used McConnell’s campaign team to beat back a primary challenge last year.
Internal Alabama politics also played a key role, because Strange received the appointment to succeed Attorney General Jeff Sessions from then-Gov. Robert J. Bentley, who resigned amid scandal a few weeks later.
Acting Gov. Kay Ivey, bowing to local political pressure from GOP rivals who did not like Strange, called a snap special election rather than give Strange until 2018 to find his footing. “They need as much time as they can get to get on their feet, so to speak, and build a base, and four or five months is not a long time to do that,” Shelby said.
Still, as he has done with other incumbents, McConnell went all in for Strange with his constellation of super PACs and Washington-based organizations flooding Alabama airwaves for weeks with anti-Moore ads.
Nothing broke through, and once Stephen Bannon left his White House post advising Trump, he returned to run Breitbart News and raced to Alabama to throw in with Moore and vow more primary challengers to McConnell’s incumbents.
Trump’s support for Strange was meant to shore up relations with Senate Republicans after their caustic August shouting match carried out through the media and Twitter. Corker, in a meeting with Trump recently, pleaded for the president to go to Alabama on Strange’s behalf. Trump did so, but in a rambling 90-minute speech Friday night, the president suggested “maybe I made a mistake” in supporting the appointed senator.
It did not even matter that Moore spent the final week voicing his opposition to the very health care repeal legislation that Trump was touting.
Alabama Republicans chose the candidate they believed was “more interested in breaking” Washington rather than one who would loyally back Trump, Holmes said.
That’s the message McConnell is taking away from this week – one he will carry with him in the months ahead, particularly on the tax-cut effort.
“They’ve got to reunify,” Holmes said.
If not, McConnell will face more weeks like this one over the next year.