Will GOP Senators Allow Trump to Sabotage Their Chances in Alabama?

Senate Republicans are facing a “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” situation in the looming impeachment battle. As Trump’s guilt become more obvious by the day–and defending him becomes ever more impossible and impalatable–Republican leaders are caught in a vise. If they don’t defend Trump from impeachment, the president’s loyal base will turn on them and may stay home from the polls in 2020. But if they do defend the raging tire fire of venom and corruption in the White House, they may lose enough people of basic decency that it imperils their Senate majority. And it’s not just in 2020: the damage may well last a generation or more.

Few contests make clearer than the Senate race in Alabama. Most scenarios in which the GOP maintains control of the Senate in a blue wave election year depend on winning back the Alabama Senate seat lost in a stunning upset to Doug Jones in 2017. The special election was necessitated because President Trump elevated Jeff Sessions to Attorney General, thinking he would get a loyalist lackey in the position. Sessions to his credit refused to play along, earning Trump’s heated ire before he was replaced by the much more corruptly pliable William Barr. Still, Alabama is a deeply red state, and the conventional wisdom is that Jones will not survive in 2020.

But the stars are not aligning in the GOP’s favor. Jones won mostly because his opponent was Roy Moore, a extremist fanatic who was not only exposed as too far right even for Alabama Republicans, but also as an alleged child molester. A normal person, having lost as his party’s standard-bearer in one of the safest seats for his party in the country, would find another line of work. But not Moore. He is running again–and if he wins the GOP nomination, Doug Jones may survive to serve another terms.

But Moore isn’t the only Republican running. Jeff Sessions has indicated he wants his old seat back, and plans to run as well. Sessions would likely be a much more formidable opponent for Jones than Moore: Alabama voters know him, and were used to sending him to Congress what once seemed like a lifetime appointment. A competent political party led by a competent president would simply throw its weight behind Sessions and that would be that.

But Donald Trump’s corruption may throw a monkey wrench in that plan. His hatred of Sessions for refusing to twist the Justice Department far enough in his favor may wind up costing the GOP his nomination and thus the Senate seat itself:

News of Mr. Sessions’s decision to run startled and dismayed national Republicans, who had hoped that he would step aside to avoid the possibility of being vilified by Mr. Trump — and to spare them the headache of a nationalized race in a state they hope to win back…

Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, has been less than thrilled with the idea of a Sessions candidacy, according to two people familiar with his thinking. He views it as a distraction that could end poorly for Republicans — especially if a crowded Republican primary ends with Mr. Moore as the nominee again…

But over the last week, Mr. Trump sent word to Mr. Sessions through allies that he would publicly attack him if he ran. And Mr. McConnell recently approached Mr. Trump, asking him whether his feelings about Mr. Sessions might have improved. The president said he was very much still opposed to Mr. Sessions and would make that clear if he had to, according to a person briefed on the discussions.

For now, Congressional Republicans have had Trump’s back in attempting to dissuade Sessions from running. But Sessions appears unwilling to back down, and it’s not clear that any of the other likely candidates would have the capacity to defeat both him and Moore.

And as Republican Senators face down the prospect of defending the indefensible, they may also witness the person putting them in the vise also potentially costing them their Senate majority over the very same corruption issues that created this situation in the first place. How patient will they be remains to be seen. But it’s worth remembering that Trump famously holds no loyalty to anyone, including to the Republican Party itself. Will the cost of defending him be worth it, if it means sacrificing a Senate seat in Alabama for the next six years, and with it the Senate majority itself?

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.