Luther Strange aide: Trump's off-message rally may have killed our momentum

Kudos to whichever unnamed advisor to “Big Luther” had the elephant-sized stones to blame Trump for not carrying a weak, charisma-less incumbent across the finish line in a race he trailed consistently by 8-10 points. Trump gambled some of his populist prestige in endorsing Strange, knowing that he was a longshot, then doubled down by showing up in Alabama on the final weekend to try to help him pull off the upset. Every big-name populist star on the right was on Moore’s side while Trump’s chief ally was the toxically unpopular Mitch McConnell. The entire episode was a minor disaster in the making for Trump by wading in but he chanced it to help out a loyalist. And now he’s getting shanked for it.

Which narrative is more persuasive? That somehow Strange was on his way to a comeback before the tremendously popular president threw Alabama Republicans off-track by attacking the NFL? Or that Trump was right that Strange was, ahem, “low energy” and couldn’t get the crowd at his own rally excited about him, creating the perception that Trump had lost “his people”? Remember, Roy Moore has lost Republican (gubernatorial) primaries in Alabama before. He wasn’t invincible even in a populist climate; no doubt Jeff Sessions would have stomped him, assuming Moore had had the nerve to primary Sessions at all. Strange, a weak candidate who’s much less well known, was a different story.

I wish I had a transcript of the full quote but this tidbit from NYT reporter Jonathan Martin appears to be the extent of it. Even so, it’s enough.

Back in reality, Byron York argues persuasively that Trump wasn’t even among the top three factors in the race. His last-minute appeal proved that he can’t singlehandedly swing 10 points in a Republican primary overnight, especially when the other candidate is as famous as Moore, but he saddled himself with a candidate who was in turn saddled with lots of baggage — most of it local:

[Alabama Gov. Robert] Bentley’s time in office ended in scandal on April 10, when he resigned upon pleading guilty to using state resources to hide an affair he was having with an aide. Two months earlier, on February 9, a scandal-plagued Bentley appointed Strange, then the Alabama attorney general, to fill the Senate seat vacated when Jeff Sessions joined the Trump administration.

It looked like a shady deal from the start. At the time of the appointment, Bentley was under investigation by the Alabama attorney general’s office. Strange was attorney general. In the middle of the investigation he was conducting of the governor, Strange went to interview with Bentley to be the new senator. In addition, Strange had asked the Alabama legislature to hold off on impeachment proceedings against the governor while the attorney general’s office investigated. And then he accepted the Senate appointment.

“The whole thing stinks,” one top Alabama Republican said at the time. Although all involved denied any wrongdoing, the scandal stuck not only to Bentley but to Strange.

Strange wasn’t just Mitch McConnell’s guy, he was Bentley’s guy, which lent him a stench of “swampiness” that not even Trump’s populist cred could remove. It’ll be funny when McConnell comes to him again next spring, begging him to campaign for Senate incumbents, and ends up having to argue that Strange was a uniquely tainted candidate whose poor performance won’t be replicated by other Republicans. To which Trump will say, why the hell did we both go all-in on him then?

An interesting quote from Marco Rubio’s former campaign manager about Moore’s victory: “Be careful what you wish for, and Trump is seeing this now. The anger of the voters is not necessarily focused or implemented in a smart way… You can start a revolution, but that doesn’t mean it’s gonna follow you. They got Robespierre in the end, too.” They’re not going to “get” Trump that way, but the Moore playbook for getting to Trump’s right could work as well for him in the Senate as it did in the election. If Trump pushes some centrist policy, like a DREAM deal, Moore could oppose it while claiming the mantle of Trump’s legacy in doing so. Trump’s “globalist” advisors are pushing him into a bad deal, he’ll say, and someone needs to stand firm in defense of the president’s brilliant agenda, etc etc. Imagine that three or four other right-wing insurgents end up in the Senate next year and join Moore in that effort. Trump might end up stuck having his policies thwarted by people falling all over themselves to praise him, putting him in a bizarrely awkward spot where he’s forced to either attack them for standing on his brand or to cave to them and look like he’s being dragged along by people who take his own agenda more seriously than he does. Unless Moore proves to be much more servile in rubber-stamping Trump’s initiatives than everyone expects, he could give the White House fits and open a rift among populists between him and the president.