How Roy Moore won the first battle of the anti-McConnell war

Story highlights

  • Roy Moore's victory appears to be a signal to GOP primary challengers to run
  • Millions of dollars and Donald Trump couldn't help Sen. Luther Strange win

Montgomery, Alabama (CNN)All the Republican establishment's money and muscle couldn't stop culture warrior Roy Moore from ousting Sen. Luther Strange here Tuesday night.

Now, suddenly, other outsider candidates see a much bigger opening to make Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a villain and turn the party on its head in the 2018 midterms.
"This shows it can be done," said Danny Tarkanian, who is challenging Sen. Dean Heller in Nevada's Republican primary. "It shows the amount of money McConnell and his super PACs put in the race can't change the feeling that voters have right now."
    Moore's victory comes at an uncertain moment for GOP lawmakers, donors and operatives. The party's stumbles on Capitol Hill have fed into a growing frustration with its leadership, and Moore's win underscores the vulnerability of incumbents such as Heller and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake. Another possible target, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, announced his retirement Tuesday.
    For all the right-wing insurgency's bluster -- and despite its efforts in places like neighboring Mississippi in 2014 and Arizona last year -- a sitting GOP senator had not been toppled in a primary since Indiana's Richard Lugar in 2012.
    Some in the White House and in McConnell's camp were sure that President Donald Trump's campaign stop for Strange here Friday night, coupled with the $10 million that a Mitch McConnell-aligned super PAC poured into the race, could stave off the insurgency again.
    But Moore's side countered with support from Steve Bannon, the former chief strategist in Trump's White House who now sees himself as the chief tormenter of Senate Republican incumbents.
    "You're going to see, in state after state after state, people that follow the model of Judge Moore that do not need to raise money from the elites," he said at Moore's victory party Tuesday night.
    For both Trump -- whose tweets supporting Strange were apparently deleted Tuesday night -- and the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund super PAC, Tuesday's outcome offered a stark glimpse at the limits of their influence.
    "The days have come to an end where the muscle and money from the majority can push through candidates in this new political environment," said Matt Schlapp, the American Conservative Union chairman who attended a Monday night dinner where Trump quizzed influential right-wing figures about the race.
    The millions spent on TV ads propping up Strange were wasted, Schlapp said, because they only emphasized that Strange was McConnell's candidate.
    "The messenger is the message. And if the messenger lacks credibility, then the message will lack credibility," Schlapp said.
    As for Strange, he said, "He was Mitch's boy and he was the governor's boy."

    The Bentley factor

    The central theme of Alabama's Senate race has been anti-establishment backlash.
    And it began before there even was a race.
    Strange was Alabama's attorney general when he was tapped by then-Gov. Robert Bentley to temporarily fill the seat of Sen. Jeff Sessions, after he was picked to be attorney general, until the state could hold a special election.
    But Bentley was awash in a sex scandal that would soon force him out of office. And Strange's potential role in prosecuting Bentley opened the door to questions about whether the two had struck some sort of deal to spare the governor from criminal charges.
    When Moore and Rep. Mo Brooks entered the race in the spring, they made pointed reminders of how Strange had gotten the job a centerpiece of their campaigns.
    "The cement had been poured on Luther Strange because of the former governor," said Mississippi-based veteran Republican operative Austin Barbour.
    "That was probably the biggest issue in this race for months -- that voters in Alabama were so upset with Robert Bentley," Barbour said. "And anybody that they associated with Robert Bentley, they didn't want anything to do with."

    Early signs of trouble for Strange

    Moore -- a figure whose relationships within the Alabama Republican Party span decades, and whose support from the evangelical grassroots is difficult to match -- surged in the summer, headed into the mid-August primary.
    Two positive tweets and a robocall from Trump were enough to net Strange 33% in the primary. But Moore won 39% -- pushing the two into the runoff held Tuesday.
    Quickly, the third-place primary finisher Brooks' district in northern Alabama became a battleground. Moore secured Brooks' endorsement fewer than two weeks from election day.
    "We are in an epic battle between the people of Alabama who put America first and the Washington swamp that hopes to buy our Senate seat and put America last," Brooks told Republicans in Huntsville.
    Hours later, Trump announced he would hold a rally in Alabama -- a state that carries psychic importance to the President, dating to an early 2016 campaign rally that drew tens of thousands.
    Trump had been urged by some advisers inside and outside the White House against wading into a race where private polls showed Moore ahead.
    And, speaking to an adoring crowd with many Trump-Moore voters on Friday night, the President candidly acknowledged the reality on the ground.
    "I'll be honest, I might have made a mistake," Trump said.

    Moore shuts the door

    Throughout his campaign, Moore was careful to campaign only against McConnell -- not Trump.
    He seemed to take the attack ads personally, complaining about them in interviews and at every rally. Though he'd dodged the question early in the campaign, by its end, Moore was campaigning on a pledge to oust McConnell as Senate majority leader.
    Moore twisted the knife in a Thursday night debate, just days before the election, which took place with no moderator. Armed with opposition research notes, Moore attacked Strange for being a lobbyist and for McConnell groups' spending. Then, he turned to Bentley -- asking Strange whether he had made a deal with the former governor and noting it again when Strange didn't directly respond.
    Meanwhile, in Washington, Bannon had spent weeks urging conservative groups to rally around Moore -- as well as Tarkanian, conservative Flake challenger Kelli Ward and other anti-establishment candidates. He ordered Breitbart.com, where he has returned as a top executive, to pour its energy into the race, amping up Moore endorsements from figures like Sarah Palin.
    Bannon was on hand himself Monday night to close out Moore's campaign. He'd also invited Nigel Farage, the British "Brexit" figure. The two told Moore's supporters that they were there to help Trump -- by rejuvenating his movement with a shot across McConnell's bow.
    "They think you're a pack of morons. They think you're nothing but rubes," Bannon said there. "They have no interest at all in what you have to say, what you have to think or what you want to do. And tomorrow, you're going to get an opportunity to tell them what you think of the elites who run this country."