Alabama's special senate election reflects the great Republican divide

Nearly nine months after President Trump's surprising and unconventional election, the Republican Party is still in a tailspin. GOP leaders seem unable to unify on any key issue, evidenced by their recent inability to push a healthcare bill through the Senate. Part of the problem is that Republicans are facing a confusing era of ideological change, and there does not seem to be a clear end in sight.

The looming special election in Alabama offers a snapshot of the internal conflict stewing in the GOP. The Republican primary ticket offers Alabama citizens a long and varied list of 10 candidates. Three of these candidates are considered to have a fighting chance: incumbent Sen. Luther Strange, former State Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, and U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks.

Recent polls indicate that Moore is leading the race at 30 percent of the vote, with Strange following at 22 percent, and Brooks pulling 19 percent. With these numbers, any one of the three could end up as the face of the Republican party in the senatorial race.

What's interesting is that these are very different faces—not physically, but ideologically.

Strange is the establishment candidate, although he is quite conservative. The RNC is spending $350,000 on his campaign, and he has the outright support of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell's super PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund, has pledged to spend as much as $8-$10 million on Strange's run. McConnell is already struggling to control his narrow Senate majority, and having a loyal Republican in the mix would be to McConnell's advantage.

But Strange's competitors are far from McConnell and the establishment's ideal. Moore is an outspoken social conservative. As a Supreme Court justice, Moore was removed twice from office—the second time, notably, for refusing to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision on gay marriage. Moore has said that he doesn't want the support of McConnell or "his cronies in Washington."

Brooks is similarly a stark conservative, though less eccentric. He is a member of the House Freedom Caucus, and supports strong immigration controls and pro-gun policies reminiscent of President Trump's agenda. However, Brooks has spoken out against the Trump administration on multiple occasions, and has said he might not support McConnell in the Senate. This is the key difference between Strange and Brooks, though some of their policies are similar.

The close race between Strange, Moore, and Brooks in Alabama highlights a new and disturbing truth about the Republican Party nationally, that the GOP is in a fight to determine what it stands for.

This is a result of a total lack of a unity in the Republican Party. The party encompasses northeast centrists, religious conservatives, fiscal conservatives, small-government libertarians, populists, and more. As a result, Republican primaries like the one in Alabama are filled with candidates cut from completely different molds, and there is no pressure on candidates to conform to a central message.

Reince Priebus put it accurately during the 2016 Republican presidential primary when he said that the candidates were "trying out for [the GOP] team" and no one was "forcing them to wear [the GOP] jersey."

The rift in the Republican Party is creating a more complex political environment that in some ways resembles the multi-party systems of other nations. Some GOP candidates may as well be from different parties, which can be confusing for Republican voters searching for common ground. If the ideological fracture continues, it could make it difficult for the Republican Party to remain competitive with Democrats—as Lincoln put it, "A house divided against itself cannot stand."

Despite tension, the GOP has been incredibly successful in the past few election cycles. However, Republican success has not been from ideological unity, but from a common enemy in former President Barack Obama and the Democrats.

But winning elections is not enough, and it is certainly not the only measure of party success. What matters is actual, palpable policy change. And this has been something that the GOP has struggled to deliver.

A Republican will likely end up winning the senate seat in Alabama, since the state is so consistently red. However, whether that Republican is Strange, Moore, or Brooks makes a difference. They are not the same kind of Republican, and they may not all push the same policies through Congress.

In a surprise move that shocked the political establishment in Alabama, Trump decided to get directly involved in the primary and endorse Strange by tweet on Tuesday. This is shocking because most of Trump's most ardent supporters were backing Roy Moore or Mo Brooks, and this endorsement will be a test of how much weight Trump's endorsement carries in a deeply-red state.

The future of the GOP remains uncertain. If Republicans want to enact real change and improve the country, they need to band together and portray a strong, united front. Too much internal conflict is not only bad for the party; it's bad for the country.

Christopher Reid is general practice attorney in Birmingham, Alabama. He has worked for Republican leadership in the United States House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. He currently co-hosts a conservative radio show for Yellowhammer News, which is heard throughout the state of Alabama. Special thanks to Katharine Pickle for her help with this piece.

This article was originally published in The Washington Examiner.