Seven years after Republicans first seized on the unruly rise of the Tea Party as a vehicle for winning elections, GOP leaders are confronting a stark reality: They have lost all control and comprehension of the populist movement they were supposed to be marshaling—and they may soon be facing a mutiny.
The volatile dynamic inside the Republican Party was thrown into sharp relief last week when Roy Moore—a fringe relic of the fading religious right—emerged victorious in Alabama’s GOP Senate primary, defeating the establishment incumbent President Trump had endorsed.
With the dust still settling, many Washington Republicans are mystified—and alarmed—by the fact that not even Donald “Drain the Swamp” Trump had enough populist cred to swing a primary race to his candidate in deep-red Alabama. While the GOP’s class of professional strategists are generally ambivalent at best when it comes to the president, they had taken a certain comfort in believing that he was fully in command of his base. The assumption allowed them to draw conclusions about what his voters wanted, how to cater to them—and how to avoid drawing their wrath.
But Alabama fully punctured the illusion that Trump was in control. For all the race’s idiosyncrasies—Trump’s endorsement of the more establishment-friendly candidate was uncharacteristic for him, and his support often seemed conflicted—it seemed to reveal that there was a limit to his supporters’ loyalty.
“Trump seems uniquely able to give voice to voters’ anger, but incapable of channeling it towards a larger purpose,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist whose firm released a client memo on Friday featuring data that suggested the president’s endorsement had no impact whatsoever in the Alabama race.