Alabama's Senate race is seriously scrambling Republican politics.
Two GOP candidates will meet on Sept. 26 for the right to oppose Democrat Doug Jones in December. One is the incumbent Luther Strange, who was appointed to the seat vacated by Jeff Sessions when he became Attorney General. Strange enjoys the strong support of Senate leader Mitch McConnell, many pro-business groups and President Trump, who will campaign for him this weekend.
However, Strange's opponent, former state judge Roy Moore, is campaigning as the One True Trumpian with the backing of religious conservatives and Breitbart, the alt-right news site headed by Trump's former adviser Steve Bannon. Moore and his allies have assaulted Strange, a former Washington lobbyist for the natural gas industry, as a "swamp monster" and Capitol insider.
Democrats would have trouble beating either opponent in a deep red state like Alabama, but that's not the point. Moore is leading in the polls, and Republican strategists fear that if he wins, he'll encourage other primary challenges from the right against sitting GOP senators next year and through 2020.
"Alabama is the big enchilada," Scott Reed, chief political strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told the Washington Post.
To Reed and other charter members of the party's governing wing, an epidemic of right-wing primary challenges would lead to disaster, and history backs them up. In recent years, Republicans have nominated hardline purists in at least five states — Colorado, Indiana, Nevada, Delaware and Missouri -- who then lost winnable Senate battles to moderate Democrats. A few more self-inflicted wounds like that and Democrats could retake the Senate.
Another possible outcome is almost as bad for the Republican leadership: more Roy Moores and fewer Luther Stranges in the Senate would seriously complicate their ability to assemble a working majority. That's already happened in the House where 40 or so dead-enders from the Freedom Caucus have long crippled the ability of their leaders to negotiate legislative compromises. They drove former Speaker John Boehner so crazy he quit in frustration.
So where does President Trump fit in this GOP civil war? Since he is wildly impulsive and consistently inconsistent, the answer is far from clear. As a candidate, he was happy to attack his rivals as "swamp monsters," and he's openly feuded with his Congressional leaders, Sen. McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan.
One whole part of his political strategy is to maintain his "outsider" status and stir up his base with repeated attacks on the Washington elites. In fact, a study by the Post shows a strong overlap in Alabama between Trump and Moore voters.
"The better Trump did relative to his state percentage, the better Moore did in that county in the primary," reports the Post.
And outside of Alabama, Trump has viciously attacked Republican incumbents he considers disloyal and encouraged primary challengers in the Roy Moore mold to take them on next year.
A good example is Arizona, where Republican Senator Jeff Flake published a book denouncing Trump as "all noise and no signal" and deriding the Republican Party for accepting his leadership. "We pretended the emperor wasn't naked," he wrote.
In return, Trump has openly cheered on Flake's potential challenger next year, Kelli Ward. In a recent tweet he said, "Great to see that Dr. Kelli Ward is running against Flake Jeff Flake, who is WEAK on borders, crime and a non-factor in Senate. He's toxic!"
Another potential battleground is Nevada, where lawyer Danny Tarkanian is attacking incumbent Dean Heller by portraying himself as a loyal Trumpian and his opponent as a dangerous establishmentarian captured by Washington power brokers. Conservative money types are also looking at Mississippi, where two-term incumbent Roger Wicker could face a challenge next year from right-wing favorite Chris McDaniel.
So what is Trump up to? Why would he defend Sen. Strange in Alabama while undermining Sen. Flake in Arizona? Will he support primary challengers in states like Nevada and Mississippi?
The answer reveals a tension running through the heart of the Trump presidency. In one sense he's still part of the Hell No Caucus himself, the Swamp Drainer-in-Chief who revels in exciting his core supporters with anti-Washington rhetoric and eviscerating opponents like Jeff Flake.
But Trump is also devoted to winning, and to pass any meaningful legislation he has to work with the party structure he despises — and even Democrats on occasion. The Outsider must on some level become an Insider. He needs "swamp monsters" like Mitch McConnell and Luther Strange more than they need him.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at email@example.com.