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August 16, 2018

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Analysis:

Trump bets on Moore and suffers stinging defeat

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Mike Stewart / AP

U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore speaks at the end of an election-night watch party at the RSA activity center, Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017, in Montgomery, Ala. Moore didn’t concede the election to Democrat Doug Jones.

WASHINGTON — Rarely has a sitting president rallied behind such a scandal-plagued candidate the way Donald Trump did with Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore. And rarely has that bet failed so spectacularly.

Moore's defeat Tuesday in Alabama — as stalwart a Republican state as they come — left Trump unusually conciliatory and his political allies shell-shocked. Trump had dug in on his support for Moore after a wave of allegations about the former judge's alleged sexual misconduct with teenagers when he was in his 30s, becoming one of the candidate's most ardent national supporters in the race's closing days.

Now, out of the wreckage of Moore's defeat to Democrat Doug Jones, Trump faces mounting questions about the limits of his own political capital. He'll head into his second year in office with one less Republican senator, narrowing a margin already so slim that it has so far left him unable to push major legislation through Congress. Democrats, who started the year as a deeply wounded minority party, press toward the midterm elections with a burst of momentum from the most unlikely of states.

To be sure, the Alabama race was highly unusual, and as with all special elections, there's no guarantee it will prove to be a barometer for contests a year from now. A perfect storm of controversies helped Jones overcome Alabama's strong Republican bent, most notably the sexual misconduct allegations that surfaced against Moore. The matter left the Republican Party deeply divided over whether holding a Senate seat was worth the potential long-term risks of supporting Moore.

Some Republicans did pull their support from Moore after the allegations surfaced, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Many more GOP officials in Washington privately preferred the prospect of a Moore defeat over having to deal with daily questions about his actions and the possible cloud of a Senate ethics investigation hanging over the party.

But Trump is the Republican Party leader, and he jumped in with both feet. In a moment of national reckoning over sexual misconduct, where hardly a day passes without a prominent man being ousted from a powerful position, the president made it impossible for the GOP to disassociate itself from Moore and the accusations swirling around him.

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Doug Jones waves to supporters before speaking during an election-night watch party Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017, in Birmingham, Ala. Jones won election to the U.S. Senate from Alabama, dealing a political blow to President Donald Trump.

Trump's immediate response to Jones' victory was surprisingly magnanimous for a president who lashes out at the smallest perceived slight and often seems to prioritize winning above all else.

"A win is a win," Trump wrote on Twitter, despite the fact that Moore would not officially concede the closely contested race. The president offered no immediate insight into whether he viewed the results as a referendum on himself, personally or politically.

But there's no doubt that Trump's track record of late has indeed been worrisome for Republicans weighing how closely to align themselves with the president in the midterms, where control of Congress will be at stake.

Last month, the Trump-backed Republican gubernatorial candidate in Virginia lost in a race that wasn't close. The president now has the dubious distinction of picking wrong twice in Alabama, a state he won by 28 points just over a year ago. His first blemish came during the state's Senate primary, when he backed Moore's opponent, Sen. Luther Strange, a decision he openly questioned while on stage at a rally for the incumbent days before the vote.

Moore's victory over Strange pushed Trump back to the roots of his presidential campaign. He realigned himself with Steve Bannon, his chief strategist during the 2016 race and in the White House until he was ousted in a staff shakeup earlier this year. Bannon was one of Moore's most prominent supporters from the start and viewed the contest as a ripe opportunity to press forward in his goal of disrupting the Republican Party.

More traditional Republicans have long warned that Bannon's chosen candidates signal disaster for the party and will struggle to defeat Democrats in competitive states. The fact that one of those candidates couldn't succeed in reliably red — or conservative — Alabama was quickly wielded as all the more reason for party leaders to marginalize Bannon.

"Not only did Steve Bannon cost us a critical Senate seat in one of the most Republican states in the country, but he also dragged the president of the United States into his fiasco," said Steven Law, the head of the McConnell-linked Senate Leadership Fund super PAC.

It's far from certain if Trump feels the same way after the Alabama race. The president seems more naturally attuned to other political outsiders and is well-aware that his command over a sizeable swath of the GOP primary electorate makes him a powerful player in determining the party's direction in upcoming elections. Whether he can transfer his own political good fortunes to those candidates remains the unanswered question.