Political News

For McConnell, Alabama Senate Loss Is Bad News and Good News

Posted December 13, 2017 7:25 p.m. EST

Voters exits a polling station at the Norwood Community Center in Birmingham, Ala., Dec. 12, 2017. Voters were headed to the polls Tuesday to decide between Roy Moore, a Republican, and Doug Jones, a Democrat, in a strange and ugly special Senate election. (Bob Miller/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, was not in a talking mood on Wednesday as he sped through the corridors of the Capitol. It had been roughly 12 hours since Doug Jones, a Democrat, had won election to the Senate — a victory that for McConnell spelled both bad news and good news.

“It was quite an impressive election,” McConnell, of Kentucky, said tersely. “It was a big turnout, and an unusual day.”

The election of Jones — the first Democrat to win a Senate seat in Alabama in 25 years — will have significant consequences on the national level, making it more difficult for Republicans to enact their legislative agenda and opening, for the first time, a possible — if narrow — path to a Democratic majority in the Senate in 2018. For McConnell, it has very immediate consequences: It reduces his already razor-thin majority in the Senate to 51 from 52 votes.

But it also relieves McConnell of a huge problem: having to deal with Roy S. Moore, the unpredictable Alabama Republican nominee whose candidacy was tarred by allegations that he molested a 14-year-old girl and made sexual advances toward other teenagers.

McConnell called repeatedly for Moore to abandon his campaign and had pledged that Moore would face an Ethics Committee investigation the moment he arrived in the Senate — an inquiry that could have put the Senate on a torturous path to expel him. Moore, a deeply polarizing former judge who is aligned with Stephen K. Bannon, President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, would undoubtedly have given McConnell headaches on policy matters, as well.

“It’s short-term pain, long-term gain,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist who is close to McConnell, in assessing the election results.

“The short-term pain,” Jennings went on, “is of course going from 52 to 51, but it’s not like he had 52 reliable votes anyway, so he still has the same problem. The long-term gain, however, is that we are not saddled with Roy Moore, which would have been a huge anchor on the president and on the Republicans in Congress.”

Throughout the Capitol on Wednesday, Senate Republicans seemed resigned to the results of a race in which they knew there would be no good outcome.

“The good voters of Alabama soundly rejected Roy Moore, who in my opinion does not represent the future of the Republican Party,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

Sen. Richard C. Shelby, the senior Republican in Alabama’s congressional delegation and an outspoken opponent of Moore, said that as he watched the returns on Tuesday night, he was “conflicted.” Moore’s loss would cause Republicans to lose a Senate seat, but Shelby confessed to feeling relieved, and said he was “proud of the people of Alabama,” telling reporters, “I believe they chose principle over politics.”

Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., tried gamely to make the argument that life would be easier for McConnell with Jones in the Senate. “I think it might be easier to manage a 51-seat majority than a 52,” Burr said. “You’ve only got one person to leverage.”

Of course, with a one-seat majority, any one of the 51 Republicans becomes that person who may need leveraging.

Senate Democrats, buoyed by their upset victory, demanded that Republicans delay the final vote on a large tax overhaul until Jones can be sworn in. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, called on McConnell to “hit pause” on the tax vote. McConnell has no intention of doing so.

“It would be wrong for Senate Republicans to jam through this tax bill without giving the newly elected senator from Alabama the opportunity to cast his vote,” Schumer said.

Schumer cited precedent: the 2010 election of Scott Brown, R-Mass., to the seat that had been held for decades by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. The Senate was weighing President Barack Obama’s health care bill at the time, and Democrats delayed the final vote — even though Brown’s election cost them their 60-vote filibuster-proof majority.

“Let’s honor the will of the people of Massachusetts,” McConnell said then.

But on Wednesday, aides to McConnell pushed back, saying that Democrats delayed the vote on health care only because they did not have enough votes to pass the bill.

Ultimately, Democrats solved their conundrum by skipping negotiations on a final health bill between the House and Senate and forcing the House to accept the Senate’s version of the Affordable Care Act, which had cleared the chamber before Brown’s election. A separate measure to clean up lingering issues with the health law was later adopted using a parliamentary procedure that ensured the legislation could pass the Senate with a simple majority. Regardless of why Democrats waited for Brown before completing the health bill, McConnell is not one to follow such pleasantries.

Democrats cited another precedent that proved that point: McConnell’s decision last year to block even a hearing for Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Merrick B. Garland.

At the time, McConnell said the vote should be delayed until after the presidential election, saying the Senate should “let the American people decide” the future of the court.

“It seems to me that rather than continuing to force through this rough-hewed, one-sided tax bill, it would make more sense to take a step back and to reconsider a bipartisan path and to allow newly elected, Senator-elect Jones to be a part of that debate,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.

But if McConnell withstood pressure to even consider Garland for 10 months, he is unlikely to buckle to pressure in the coming days.

Republicans plan to vote on the final tax measure next week and are determined to send the bill to Trump by Christmas. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, said Wednesday that party leaders have enough votes to pass it.

Jones cannot be seated in the Senate until officials in Alabama certify that he has won, and the Alabama secretary of state, John Merrill, said the vote would be certified on Dec. 26 at the earliest — and possibly as late as Jan. 3.

Jones’ victory, powered by high Democratic turnout — especially among African-American voters — comes on the heels of big wins for Democrats last month in governor races in Virginia and New Jersey. His election means that Democrats now need to pick up just two seats to win control of the Senate, which would cost McConnell his coveted spot as majority leader.

“If the national political landscape continues to deteriorate for Republicans, then the Senate majority is in play,” said Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “That is a possibility that did not exist last week.”