Politics & Policy

Alabama Senate Primary Tests Trump’s Clout — and McConnell’s

Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL) (Reuters: Aaron P. Bernstein)
In the hotly contested race for Jeff Sessions’s old seat, incumbent Luther Strange is backed by the president and the Senate majority leader. Will that be enough to put him over the top?

How much help is an endorsement from the president? Luther Strange is about to find out.

Strange, who was appointed by then-governor Robert Bentley to fill the Alabama Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions when Sessions became U.S. attorney general, is facing an uphill fight as he seeks a full term in this year’s special election. That battle begins today, with the state’s GOP primary, and Strange will need all the help he can get.

Early last week, Trump endorsed Strange in a tweet: “Senator Luther Strange has done a great job representing the people of the Great State of Alabama. He has my complete and total endorsement!” Trump’s somewhat unexpected support — presidents almost never offer endorsements during primaries — has given Strange’s campaign new life as he faces off against former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice Roy Moore and Representative Mo Brooks. If none of them gains 50 percent of the vote in today’s primary, which seems likely given that no candidate has hit 50 percent in a single poll of the race, the top two vote-getters will enter a runoff on September 26 ahead of the December 12 general election.

In late July, Gallup reported that Trump has an approval rating of 55 percent in Alabama and a monumental 85 percent approval rating among the state’s likely Republican primary voters, making his endorsement an undoubted victory for Strange and a blow to his competitors, especially Brooks, who has pitched himself as the closest candidate to Trump ideologically, running on the president’s agenda.

Trump’s endorsement of Strange was perhaps even more surprising given the president’s recent attacks on Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell in the wake of the Senate’s failure to repeal and replace Obamacare. McConnell has unquestionably backed Strange from the beginning, in large part because the former Alabama attorney general has toed the GOP line during his six months in office.

The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC with close ties to McConnell, has pledged up to $10 million in support of Strange, including through the crucial period between the primary and the runoff. Meanwhile, the McConnell-controlled National Republican Senatorial Committee has warned party strategists not to assist Strange’s opponents.

Brooks and Moore have responded by wearing McConnell’s opposition as a badge of honor, running against Washington and the party’s establishment.

Brooks has called for McConnell to be removed from his leadership post. He has also publicly requested that Trump to rescind his endorsement of Strange. “While Mitch McConnell and the Swamp managed to mislead the President last night, I still support the America First Agenda, and the polls show we have momentum,” he said in a statement last week. “Any Alabama voter who wants to see President Trump’s legislative agenda pass the United States Senate would be much better served to vote for Mo Brooks than Luther Strange,” he later told Reuters in an interview.

Moore and Strange appear to be headed for the runoff.

Moore has been a highly controversial figure in Alabama for over a decade. He was removed as chief justice in 2003 after he opposed the removal of a Ten Commandments display from the state capitol building. He was later reelected as chief justice, only to be suspended when he declined to enforce the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex unions.

In a statement following Trump’s endorsement of Strange, Moore cast himself as the anti-establishment choice. “The people of Alabama know me and know that I will stand for the principles which made this country great,” he said. “All of the money, power and prestige of Washington, D.C., will not determine who the people will elect as the next senator of the great state of Alabama.”

A majority of polls shows Moore leading both Strange and Brooks by several percentage points in the lead up to today’s primary. The RealClearPolitics average puts Moore up by nearly four points, and an August 12–13 poll from the Trafalgar Group showed him leading Strange by a whopping 14 points. An Emerson poll from Monday, though, told a slightly different story, putting Strange at 32 percent, Moore at 29, and Brooks at 15.

Whichever polls one believes, then, Moore and Strange appear to be headed for the runoff. Given the deep pockets of his backers and the inherent advantages of incumbency, it’s a safe bet Strange will be favored in that matchup. And since Alabama hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1992, that means Sessions’s seat is likely to stay in Strange’s hands — and McConnell’s.

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