Donald Trump and Republican lawmakers tried Wednesday to pin blame for Roy Moore’s special Alabama Senate race loss on the controversial former judge, but Democrats contend the president owns the bruising defeat after his full-throated endorsement.
At the White House, the message was all about a GOP tax overhaul bill following Democrat Doug Jones’ stunning upset win in a state that had not put a member of that party in the Senate since 1992. On Capitol Hill, Republican members admitted relief that Moore would not be bringing his sexual misconduct allegations to Washington — and they asserted neither Trump nor the GOP were damaged by the Alabama race, despite the embrace of Moore by Trump and the Republican National Committee.
Instead, Republican lawmakers touted their agenda, including a tax overhaul package that likely will get floor votes next week.
“Last night was about a candidate. It wasn’t about an agenda,” Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “President Trump was right when he went to Alabama months ago and he said ‘Roy Moore can’t win.’ He didn’t win. President Trump was right.
“I certainly think it was a missed opportunity,” he said. “This is not a rebuke of Republican ideas. This was about a candidate.”
Republican Sen. David Perdue of Georgia, an early backer of Trump’s presidential candidacy, also dismissed the notion that the president’s endorsement of Moore gives him ownership of the party losing what has been a solidly red seat for decades.
“I don’t see that at all,” Perdue said Wednesday morning. “What I hear … back at home is just the opposite: People want people in the Senate to get behind this president’s agenda that is working. Two million new jobs, 860 regulations and rules being reversed. … That’s what people back home want.”
But like other GOP senators, Perdue declined to answer when asked if Trump’s endorsing Moore was a mistake.
Watch: Scenes From Doug Jones’ Election Night Rally
“This was only about Alabama. I don’t think the president’s support or non-support had anything to do with,” he said. “People were completely focused on these candidates under these extraordinary circumstances.”
Byrne blamed McConnell for backing appointed GOP Sen. Luther Strange, who replaced Jeff Sessions when he became attorney general. “If Mitch McConnell had stayed out of this race, he’d have a Republican senator coming up here,” he added. Trump, it should be noted, endorsed Strange as well, and campaigned for him in Alabama.
There were ample signs, Byrne said, that Strange was “unelectable.” Yet McConnell “goes all-in for him, spends a bunch of money, runs out a ton of good candidates … and guarantees we’ve got a weak candidate in the [primary] runoff with Roy Moore.”
Veteran Republican Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma told reporters the soon-to-be 51-49 GOP majority may not hinder the party’s ability to pass its agenda items because “the things we’re doing now are pretty popular, as we move from taxation into infrastructure. I think we’re going to be in areas where … several Democrats will be supporting us.”
Inhofe echoed other GOP members when asked if the president’s embrace of Moore — “get out and vote for Roy Moore,” Trump said at a rally Friday night in nearby Pensacola, Florida — was a misstep that might damage the president and party politically.
“No, it wasn’t. It was a lousy candidate that we had,” Inhofe said.
For his part, Trump started the day by distancing himself from Moore, tweeting he “was right” that the former judge would be unable to win a general election, which was why he initially endorsed Strange.
“I was right! Roy worked hard but the deck was stacked against him!” the president tweeted.
Later in the day at the executive mansion, the message was celebratory as House and Senate tax negotiators said they were close to a deal on the tax bill — eager to score a big legislative victory before 2017 ends.
As he lunched with GOP tax conferees, Trump was asked about the Alabama outcome. “I would have liked to have had the seat,” he said.
Later in the afternoon, Trump delivered another pitch for the tax bill, predicting a windfall. “It’s going to be a lot of money,” he said.
Democrats weren’t as eager to turn the page on Alabama.
“He went all-in. I think it was a complete repudiation of him,” Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, his party’s 2016 vice presidential nominee, said of Trump.
Democratic Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland called Trump’s endorsement of Moore “a mistake,” adding that “it was a clear choice of who should represent Alabama.”
Another Maryland Democrat, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, told MSNBC that Trump “went down there and tried to make this all about party politics.” Van Hollen, who heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said it backfired on the president.
“Look, this was a big rejection of the ugly, divisive politics that Donald Trump has brought to the country,” Van Hollen said.
Sounding a similar refrain, the Democratic National Committee dubbed Jones’ win “another devastating blow to President Trump, who put his full support behind Roy Moore.”
But at least publicly, Republicans aren’t ready to blame Trump.
“I think the president was absolutely right that Roy Moore couldn’t win a general election,” said John Barrasso of Wyoming, who chairs the Senate Republican Policy Committee. Asked if Trump erred by embracing Moore, Barrasso merely said “thanks” as he hurried into a hearing.