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Donald Trump

Donald Trump’s political capital under question after his bet on Alabama candidate Roy Moore fails to pay off

Senate candidate’s defeat on Tuesday in Alabama left the president unapologetic and his political allies shell-shocked.

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 December, 2017, 9:10pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 December, 2017, 11:07pm

Rarely has a sitting president rallied behind such a scandal-plagued candidate the way Donald Trump did with Alabama’s Roy Moore. And rarely has that bet failed so spectacularly.

Moore’s defeat on Tuesday in Alabama – as stalwart a Republican state as they come – left Trump unapologetic and his political allies shell-shocked. Trump had dug in on his support for Moore after a wave of allegations about the former judge’s alleged sexual misconduct with teenagers when he was in his 30s, becoming one of the candidate’s most ardent national supporters in the race’s closing days.

Now, out of the wreckage of Moore’s defeat to Democrat Doug Jones, Trump faces mounting questions about the limits of his own political capital. He will head into his second year in office with one less Republican senator, narrowing a margin already so slim that it has so far left him unable to push major legislation through Congress. Democrats, who started the year as a deeply wounded minority party, press toward the midterm elections with a burst of momentum from the most unlikely of states.

In Alabama, a lousy night for Roy Moore, Steve Bannon and Donald Trump

To be sure, the Alabama race was highly unusual, and as with all special elections, there is no guarantee it will prove to be a barometer for contests a year from now. A perfect storm of controversies helped Jones overcome Alabama’s strong Republican bent, most notably the sexual misconduct allegations that surfaced against Moore. The matter left the Republican Party deeply divided over whether holding a Senate seat was worth the potential long-term risks of supporting Moore.

Some Republicans did pull their support from Moore after the allegations surfaced, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Many more Republican Party officials in Washington privately preferred the prospect of a Moore defeat over having to deal with daily questions about his actions and the possible cloud of a Senate ethics investigation hanging over the party.

But Trump is the Republican Party leader, and he jumped in with both feet. In a moment of national reckoning over sexual misconduct, where hardly a day passes without a prominent man being ousted from a powerful position, the president made it impossible for the Republican Party to dissociate itself from Moore and the accusations swirling around him.

Trump’s immediate response to Jones’ victory was a tweet congratulating him on Tuesday night, surprisingly magnanimous for a president who lashes out at the smallest perceived slight and often seems to prioritise winning above all else. But by Wednesday, Trump was on the defensive, reminding his followers that he had originally endorsed Moore’s Republican primary opponent, Sen. Luther Strange.

“I said Roy Moore will not be able to win the General Election. I was right!” Trump wrote in a predawn tweet. “Roy worked hard but the deck was stacked against him!”

The president offered no immediate insight into whether he viewed the results as a referendum on himself, personally or politically.

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But there’s no doubt that Trump’s track record of late has indeed been worrisome for Republicans weighing how closely to align themselves with the president in the midterms, where control of Congress will be at stake.

Last month, the Trump-backed Republican gubernatorial candidate in Virginia lost in a race that wasn’t close. The president now has the dubious distinction of picking wrong twice in Alabama, a state he won by 28 points just over a year ago. His first blemish came during the state’s Senate primary, when he backed Strange, a decision he openly questioned while on stage at a rally for the incumbent days before the vote.

Moore’s victory over Strange pushed Trump back to the roots of his presidential campaign. He realigned himself with Steve Bannon, his chief strategist during the 2016 race and in the White House until he was ousted in a staff shake-up earlier this year. Bannon was one of Moore’s most prominent supporters from the start and viewed the contest as a ripe opportunity to press forward in his goal of disrupting the Republican Party.

More traditional Republicans have long warned that Bannon’s chosen candidates signal disaster for the party and will struggle to defeat Democrats in competitive states. The fact that one of those candidates could not succeed in reliably red – or conservative – Alabama was quickly wielded as all the more reason for party leaders to marginalise Bannon.

“Not only did Steve Bannon cost us a critical Senate seat in one of the most Republican states in the country, but he also dragged the president of the United States into his fiasco,” said Steven Law, the head of the McConnell-linked Senate Leadership Fund super PAC.

It is far from certain if Trump feels the same way after the Alabama race. The president seems more naturally attuned to other political outsiders and is well-aware that his command over a sizeable swathe of the Republican Party primary electorate makes him a powerful player in determining the party’s direction in upcoming elections. Whether he can transfer his own political good fortunes to those candidates remains the unanswered question.