What Does The Alabama Senate Race Mean For The Divide In The GOP? President Trump's preferred candidate for an Alabama Senate race lost Tuesday, exposing a sharp divide among the conservative base.
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What Does The Alabama Senate Race Mean For The Divide In The GOP?

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What Does The Alabama Senate Race Mean For The Divide In The GOP?

What Does The Alabama Senate Race Mean For The Divide In The GOP?

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The special election in Alabama last night didn't go the way the president wanted. His preferred candidate, Luther Strange, the incumbent senator, lost by almost 10 points to Roy Moore. Moore is a controversial guy. He's a former state Supreme Court justice who was dismissed twice from that job. He's an anti-establishment conservative who talks in blunt terms and has offended a lot of people along the way. He says that makes him politically incorrect just like President Trump.

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is here to explain what this race means for the Republican Party and to talk about some other political developments this week. Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So what is the biggest takeaway from this Republican race in this deeply red state? I mean whoever won the Republican primary will probably be the next senator, right?

LIASSON: That's right. But it's not a slam dunk, and Democrats do want to try to make this a race because, as you said, Roy Moore is so outside the mainstream. The other takeaway is that it's a huge shot in the arm for the anti-establishment wing of the Republican Party.

CHANG: Yeah.

LIASSON: It means that Donald Trump has a loyal base, but it's not necessarily transferable to other candidates. Alabama voters love Trump, but they can't stand the Republican establishment. And Roy Moore ran against Mitch McConnell almost more than he did Luther Strange. It also means that every Republican senator thinking about retiring is now going to think a little harder.

CHANG: (Laughter).

LIASSON: And every nationalist, populist, anti-establishment challenger is going to be emboldened. I think it probably means that Republicans will have to spend a lot more money fighting off primary challengers at the same time they're trying to expand their majority.

And today Kellyanne Conway, the White House adviser, when asked whether this was a setback or an embarrassment for the president said this was a victory for Trumpism. And I think that's true. The Trumpifying (ph) of the Republican Party just took another step forward in Alabama even if Trump himself was shown to have less personal juice with his voters than he might have thought.

CHANG: Well, tell us a little more about Roy Moore. Why is this win making some Republicans so nervous?

LIASSON: Because Roy Moore has a lot of extreme, out-of-the-mainstream views that now other Republican candidates are going to be asked about. Do they agree with him that Sharia law is already here in the U.S., that Muslims shouldn't serve in Congress, that 9/11 was God's punishment for perverseness...

CHANG: Wow.

LIASSON: ...That homosexuality is evil, that President Obama is not a United States citizen? This is what happened with Republicans all over the country with Troy Akin (ph) in 2010.

CHANG: Right.

LIASSON: And it could happen again.

CHANG: Also this week, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee announced he's retiring. How are Republicans seeing that announcement? I mean Tennessee is another red state.

LIASSON: That's true, but it's always harder to hang onto an open seat than to re-elect an incumbent. That said, Corker was going to face a difficult primary challenge from the Trumpist (ph) right wing of his party because he had famously said that Donald Trump hasn't displayed the competence or stability needed to be a successful president. And in fact he was questioning his mental fitness.

CHANG: Yeah.

LIASSON: And that would have been in every single ad against Corker.

CHANG: Right.

LIASSON: Now, it's not clear if Democrats can take advantage of these retirements or the general turmoil in the Republican Party the way they did in 2010, but they are going to try. And even though they haven't yet been able to win any red congressional districts or states, they have flipped a handful of state legislative races in Republican districts. I also think Corker's retirement says something about the Senate. It's getting more tribal, more polarized. Bob Corker was someone willing to work in the center for compromise, and that makes Mitch McConnell's job much harder.

CHANG: Speaking of McConnell really quickly, the Republican leader in the Senate, he doesn't seem to be having his best week ever.

LIASSON: No. In addition to losing Luther Strange, seeing Corker retire, he had to pull the Obamacare replacement bill. And today the president said he wants to revisit health care in the new year but also that in the meantime, he's going to see if he can negotiate with the Democrats on a bipartisan bill.

CHANG: All right. That's NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you.

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