There’s Potential for Chaos in Alabama’s Special Election

On November 7th, there will be a special election for the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions when he was appointed Attorney General by the President. The incumbent appointee, Luther Strange, is currently locked in a primary with a strong challenger, and according to polling looks like he’s going to lose the September 26th runoff. Strange was appointed by a disgraced Governor who recently stepped down, a fact which has undoubtedly contributed to his vulnerability in the primary. His challenger, former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, is a conservative firebrand who is known in Alabama for his far-right convictions.

Regardless of whether Strange or Moore wins the primary, the Republican candidate is overwhelmingly favored to win here. The margin of the contest is what will be interesting. A Republican win by only single digits could be a bad omen going into 2018, as that would indicate Republicans are having trouble motivating their voters to turn out even in states where Donald Trump is still popular.

But this race has another, little discussed implication. Should Strange lose his primary, the Republican candidate will be one who has explicitly campaigned on opposing leadership in the Senate (who went all in for Strange). That’s bad news for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who already has a precarious grip on power with only a narrow majority and no legislative successes so far. Furthermore, if it can happen in Alabama, it can happen anywhere. Should a Republican primary challenger successfully oust an incumbent on the premise that Senate leadership has been a failure, that will embolden and strengthen the position of similarly styled candidates in other states. This wouldn’t be unlike what happened to the Republican party in 2010 and 2012, where conservative challengers defeated more mainstream candidates in Republican primaries and went on to hand victory to Democrats in Delaware, Nevada, and Indiana.

That particular outcome is unlikely to happen in Alabama, where Roy Moore has a significant base of voters and Republicans tend to perform well regardless of the year. What would happen instead is more like what went down in Texas in 2012. The Lt. Governor David Dewhurst ran for the Republican nomination and came in first in the primary, but was forced into a runoff because the state requires a majority for nomination. The second place finisher in round 1 was Ted Cruz, who went on to defeat Dewhurst in the runoff. Cruz won the open Senate seat easily in the general election, and has since become known for being difficult for party leadership to handle. This is what would most likely happen in Alabama too. While Moore is very conservative, he wouldn’t be the kind of Senator that Mitch McConnell wants in his caucus.

At worst, a Moore victory in Alabama could increase the chances of serious primary upsets in 2018, something Steve Bannon is already working toward. Successful upsets in places like Nevada and Arizona could easily result in the election of Democrats and the slimming of the Republican majority. But upsets in places like Mississippi and Tennessee could cause damage so great that McConnell’s leadership wouldn’t survive it, and unleash pandemonium in the upper chamber.