STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
What do Republicans do now after losing a Senate race in deep red Alabama? For some Republicans, the loss by Roy Moore was a relief. It saved them from being associated with a man accused of pursuing or even assaulting teenagers when he was in his 30s. For President Trump, the loss was a disappointment because his party lost a seat in the Senate. The GOP majority is now 51 to 49, very narrow, and we're heading into a congressional election year. Alex Conant is going to talk through the problem with us. He's a Republican strategist, once communications director for Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. Alex, good morning.
ALEX CONANT: Good morning. Thanks for having me.
INSKEEP: Are you in the relieved column or the disappointed column?
CONANT: I'm in the relieved column. I never thought I would be so relieved to have a Democrat win a Senate seat. But if Roy Moore was coming to D.C. next week as the newly minted Republican senator from Alabama, it would just create a whole host of problems for the party that we then have to carry with us into 2018. So I'd rather lose one seat than have to deal with that all next year.
INSKEEP: Still, you're in a little bit of trouble - your party is in a little bit of trouble in the Senate now.
CONANT: Well, I think our party is facing a lot of trouble if you look at the most recent election results. We have a highly motivated and energized Democratic Party, whereas Republican voters aren't feeling as hot. I think part of that is because so far, at least, we haven't delivered much on our legislative agenda. Hopefully that will change next week when we finally pass tax reform and give our base something to be excited about. And part of that is because we've had some bad candidates, like Roy Moore, specifically, who just, obviously, had a lot of baggage. So, yeah, we have to govern with one less seat in the Senate, but we still have the majority, at least for now.
INSKEEP: OK. There's two things to follow up on there. First, you're hoping that passing tax reform - passing this tax change will be good for the party and fire up the base. But surveys have shown that this tax bill, as constructed, is really quite unpopular, and it doesn't actually deliver tax cuts for a lot of people. Is it actually going to help to pass unpopular legislation?
CONANT: Well, we can't just pass it and then assume that, well, all of a sudden our poll numbers are going to start improving. I think we have to spend a lot of time selling it to the American people, and we have to spend all of next year explaining to people what's in it and why - how it's benefiting them to the extent that some people - most people will see tax relief in 2018. We need to make sure that they appreciate it. That is to say that they noticed that their paychecks are a little bit bigger and it's not just because their boss was a little bit more generous, but it was because of tax reform that President Trump and the Republicans delivered. We need to make sure that we're associated with that.
INSKEEP: I want to ask about another thing. You said it's good not to have candidates around like Roy Moore who clearly was detrimental to the Republican cause in this election the other day. But I'm thinking about Roy Moore - a guy who endorses conspiracy theories, a guy who makes inflammatory remarks about Muslims, a guy who's accused of misconduct or assault by numerous women. Is that not, also, a description of the president of the United States who is still popular among Republicans and is sure to dominate the news throughout this election year coming up?
CONANT: Well, President Trump's never been accused of molesting children, as far as I know, and I think that was what, ultimately, troubled so many people about Roy Moore's candidacy. But I do take your point that a lot of what President Trump does and says is highly divisive and it's why his poll numbers are in the low 30s in the most recent polls. And it's just really hard to be a governing party if the leader of your party is that unpopular. I think to be successful in the long run and to maintain our majorities in 2018 and beyond, the president really does need to improve his political standing.
INSKEEP: I want to ask about Steve Bannon, who, of course, is out there - former presidential adviser, out there pushing for a particular kind of candidate in 2018. Congressman Pete King, Republican of New York, wants Bannon to, essentially, go away, get off the stage and had this to say about Bannon yesterday on CNN.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PETER KING: I consider myself a conservative Republican. I consider myself an Irish Catholic, and he sort of parades himself out there with his weird alt-right views that he has. And to me, it's demeaning the whole governmental and political process.
INSKEEP: Is there a danger that Steve Bannon, with the power that he has with Breitbart behind him, could bend the Republican Party in his direction?
CONANT: Well, certainly, he helped Roy Moore get the nomination in Alabama. Look, I think there were a lot of candidates and, frankly, some donors that were flirting with Steve Bannon before the Alabama election. I think that stops now.
INSKEEP: Alex Conant, thanks very much, good to talk with you.
CONANT: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: He is a former adviser to Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.