The Primary Fallout

By Jim Ellis

Sept. 29, 2017 — Former Alabama State Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore’s victory in Tuesday’s special Senate run-off election has created a media narrative suggesting that statewide GOP primary challenges will soon be sweeping the political scene, but such simply won’t happen.

While Judge Moore’s win may give legs to one adjacent budding Senate primary challenge, the number isn’t going expand due to the 2018 electoral set-up. That is, few Republicans, eight to be exact, are in-cycle for the coming election and the two most vulnerable situations already feature incumbents engaged with primary opponents.

Additionally, the Moore-Sen. Luther Strange contest had unique characteristics that made a primary victory over this particular incumbent more likely, if not probable. Strange, then Alabama’s attorney general, receiving the vacancy appointment in “swamp-like” fashion from a governor trying to avoid impeachment, and using the Senate appointment process to game the system so that he could later choose the person who would continue the legal investigation of himself, cast Strange in a negative light from his very first day in Washington.

Furthermore, the new senator attracted only 32 percent in his first election, meaning that two-thirds of his own party’s Aug. 15 primary voters turned away from him at their first opportunity, was a clear signal that Strange’s appointment was met with widespread dissatisfaction and that the former AG wouldn’t last long in his new job.

The cycle’s two most vulnerable Republican members, Nevada’s Dean Heller and Arizona’s Jeff Flake, already have active primary opponents. With Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker now announcing that he won’t seek re-election, an open seat major primary will obviously ensue.

The potential primary challenger who did admittedly get a boost from the Moore win is Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel who said he is closer to challenging Sen. Roger Wicker because Judge Moore upended appointed Sen. Strange. The remaining in-cycle Republican senators: Orrin Hatch (UT), John Barrasso (WY), Deb Fischer (NE), and Ted Cruz (TX), appear to be in no danger of facing a nomination opponent.

To review the Mississippi situation, we remember McDaniel from his 2014 primary challenge to Sen. Thad Cochran, a vote that actually placed him ahead of the then six-term incumbent but one that missed a majority result by less than a percentage point. Sen. Cochran was then able to rebound in the run-off, denying McDaniel his chance of victory. In the meantime, the latter man was re-elected to the state Senate in the 2015 Mississippi elections, and now appears poised to return to the statewide political scene.

Before Tuesday’s special Alabama run-off, Sen. McDaniel was quoted as saying he is considering challenging Sen. Wicker, or waiting until the 2019 statewide elections to instead enter what is sure to be an open lieutenant governor’s race. On Tuesday night, in an interview after Moore’s win in the neighboring state, McDaniel confirmed that the result is encouraging him to more seriously consider a new Senate attempt.

But, a Wicker challenge will be much different for McDaniel than the one in which Judge Moore engaged, and from when he challenged Sen. Cochran. In the latter case, McDaniel was facing an elderly incumbent, in questionable health, who hadn’t faced a strong political opponent since winning his first re-election campaign back in 1984, and never in a primary. Against Sen. Wicker, the situation will be far more imposing.

Knowing that he would be a potential primary target since McDaniel’s race against Sen. Cochran just barely came up short, Wicker has long been ready for such a campaign. And, as the immediate past chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Mississippi’s junior senator is finely tuned to the aspects of modern campaigning. With more than $3 million in his campaign account as stated in the June Federal Election Commission disclosure filing, with a lot more soon to be revealed after the coming Oct. 15 reporting deadline, the likely Republican primary challenger will find a much different political road ahead of him, and one much more difficult to traverse.

While the Moore victory seems to create political atmospheric conditions to produce many more Senate primary challenges, reality says little will change.

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