The defeat of Senate Republican candidate Roy Moore in Alabama Tuesday is not only a sharp rebuke against President Donald Trump but serves as a warning to Republicans such as Josh Mandel of Ohio against fully embracing Trump and the arch-conservative voters who support him.
Mandel, who is seeking next year’s Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate, has campaigned as an ardent Trump supporter, backing Trump’s call for a wall along the Mexican border and an end to sanctuary cities where local officials do not cooperate with federal officials on identifying illegal immigrants.
But Democrat Doug Jones’ victory over Moore in the Alabama special election to replace U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has confirmed fears among some Republicans that attaching themselves too closely to Trump could cripple their hopes of holding the Senate and House next year. Once Jones is seated, the Republican majority in the Senate will be 51-49.
Republicans say Moore’s loss had less to do with any overriding national revulsion against Trump. Instead, they contend he was a deeply flawed candidate accused of trying to romance teenage girls, including one 14-year-old, more than three decades ago when he was in his 30s.
“The message is very simple: People don’t vote for pedophiles,” said Corry Bliss, who managed the 2016 re-election campaign of Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.
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Columbus-area Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Upper Arlington, who is heading the House GOP re-election campaign, said “candidates and campaigns matter. It wasn’t just that Roy Moore was a flawed candidate. He ran a flawed campaign. He didn’t talk to voters about what they cared about; he talked to voters about what he cared about.”
But independent analysts dismiss such an explanation. Trump’s job approval rating has tumbled nationally and exit polls from Tuesday’s race showed from among those who voted his approval rating in deeply conservative Alabama was just 48 percent.
“I don’t think the general electorate is looking for Trump clones next year,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Danielle Vinson, a professor of political science and international affairs at Furman University in South Carolina, said if she were “a Republican running in Ohio, I’m staying up at night getting ulcers trying to figure out what do I do. Because I don’t think you can fully embrace him.”
“You might be able to win the Republican nomination but I don’t know that you’ll win next year in Ohio if you embrace Trump,” she said. “It just seems to me there are way too many college-educated women, there are minorities; there’s a lot working against you if you decide to adopt that strategy next year.”
Moore’s defeat may also have been a warning against Republicans for relying on their slender congressional majorities to push through a massive tax cut which polls show is deeply unpopular with voters.
By doing so, Republicans are emulating Democrats in 2009 who brushed off an astonishing defeat in a Senate special election in Massachusetts in which the major issue was Democratic plans to overhaul the health-care system. Instead, Democrats approved an unpopular health care bill known as Obamacare, which helped lead to their loss of the House in 2010.
“The most important thing we need to do is demonstrate results that help middle class families and the No.1 way to do that is to cut middle class taxes,” Bliss said. “At the end of day, the tax bill will be very simple. Eight months from now if people see their taxes are cut, they’ll like it. If they see their taxes increase, they won’t like it.”
Yet a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday included an ominous warning: Fifty-five percent of American voters disapprove of the tax plan compared to just 26 percent who support it, while 43 percent would be less likely to support a candidate for the Senate or House who backs the bill.
“They’ve got to pass something,” said James Ruvolo, former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. “Their problem is they have a bad bill, but they have no accomplishments.”
Mandel, the state treasurer, and U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci of Wadsworth, who is seeking next year’s GOP gubernatorial nomination, have been the Ohio candidates modeling their campaigns after Trump.
Mandel has gone so far as to mimic Trump’s pattern of making accusations against his likely opponent, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, that simply do not withstand scrutiny. This week Mandel again repeated his claim that Brown air-dropped a tax break for private jet owners into the tax bill, tweeting “get used to seeing it for the next 11 months.”
The drawback is multiple fact-checkers, including Cleveland.com, have debunked the claim.
“Trump won Ohio handily in 2016, but Ohio is still more moderate than Alabama,” said Mark Caleb Smith, a professor of political science at Cedarville University. “So, for candidates to mimic Trump would have consequences in Ohio, I think.”
“When you look at successful statewide candidates in Ohio, they are not marked by outlandish behavior or pervasive showmanship,” Smith said. “They are steady, reliable, and can point to a track record.”
Mandel is running against Cleveland banker Mike Gibbons for the Republican nomination to run against Brown next year.
Publicly, Republicans are fuming at the arch conservatives headed by former White House adviser Steve Bannon, who backed Moore in a state primary, even though polls showed he would be a weak candidate in the general election.
They point out that conservative candidates defeated more established Republicans in five key state primaries in 2010 and 2012. But they were far too conservative for the general election and Democrats won all five races – Indiana, Missouri, Colorado, Nevada, and Delaware.
Jeff Sadosky, a former Portman adviser, said Bannon and other arch-conservatives “will try to shirk any responsibility for yet another blown election” with Moore. But Sadosky said “instead of talking about a near filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, Republicans are barely holding on to a one-seat advantage.”