Anyone who wishes to analyze the strange effect that Donald Trump has had on the Republican party needs look no further than Alabama, where two Republicans are battling in a primary runoff to take over the seat that Jeff Sessions vacated when he became U.S. attorney general.
In the first round of the GOP primary on August 15, incumbent Luther Strange — who was appointed by former Alabama governor Robert Bentley to fill Sessions’s seat until a special election could be held — fell six points behind a familiar face in Alabama politics: former state Supreme Court chief justice Roy Moore. Now the two are competing once again, in a runoff to be held tomorrow for their party’s nomination.
Moore might sound like an implausible fringe candidate to some, but to Alabama voters he is both known and loved. He surged to lead the pack ahead of the August 15 vote, garnering more votes than Strange or U.S. congressman Mo Brooks. None of the candidates reached the required 50 percent to win the nomination outright, sending Moore and Strange into next week’s runoff. After his loss, Brooks threw his weight behind Moore.
Moore has been an intensely controversial figure in Alabama for over a decade. In 2003, he was removed as chief justice after he opposed the demolition of a Ten Commandments display in the state capitol building. He was later reelected to the position, only to be suspended when he declined to enforce the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which required states to recognize same-sex unions.
GOP leaders in Washington have done little to hide their desperate desire to keep this Senate seat out of Moore’s clutches, and it’s easy to see why. The contention surrounding his two stints as chief justice stemmed directly from his unpolished rhetoric and his unwillingness to temper his right-wing beliefs in order to stay in the establishment’s good graces. Just this week, for example, Moore referred to Native Americans and Asians as “reds and yellows” during a speech lamenting the country’s ongoing racial division.
While such remarks might not lose Moore many points among far-right voters, they’re alarming for the Republican establishment, which has an understandable affinity for Strange, a mild-mannered, inoffensive politician whose Senate voting record closely mirrors that of majority leader Mitch McConnell.
Complicating analysis of the runoff, however, is the fact that Trump has twice endorsed Strange, despite the president’s ongoing criticisms of McConnell and his supposed distaste for “establishment” candidates. Even more intriguing, Trump’s endorsement didn’t appear to do much to move the needle toward Strange in August, even though the president remains highly popular in Alabama.
In a Thursday-night debate between Moore and Strange, Moore said of Trump, “He’s being cut off . . . he’s being redirected by people like McConnell.” Here he was echoing a common criticism leveled against Trump by his base, some parts of which have been disappointed by the president’s ongoing failure to back Moore: Namely, that the president is somehow being tricked by Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell into supporting Strange.
Former White House adviser Steve Bannon, meanwhile, has forcefully backed Moore and chosen to portray that support as an attack on the GOP establishment rather than as the product of antagonism toward Trump and his agenda. The true reasons for this odd separation between Trump and Bannon remain unclear. Surely Trump has backed Strange not because of any affinity for mainstream GOP goals, but rather because he believes that supporting the incumbent — and, by extension, boosting McConnell’s reliable vote count — will pay off for his own agenda in the long run.
For his part, Strange has relied heavily on Trump’s endorsement, using it to fend off critiques from Moore. “One thing I do know: The president is on my side,” he said in his closing statement Thursday night, to weak applause. “To suggest that the president of the United States . . . is being manipulated by Mitch McConnell is absolutely insulting to the president. That’s why he’s chosen me. He’s not being manipulated by anyone.”
The president will head to Alabama this weekend to stump for Strange, and he posted several tweets this week reiterating that staunch support. “Alabama is sooo lucky to have a candidate like ‘Big’ Luther Strange. Smart, tough on crime, borders & trade, loves Vets & Military. Tuesday!” one tweet read. And another: “Senator Luther Strange has gone up a lot in the polls since I endorsed him a month ago. Now a close runoff. He will be great in D.C.”
As Election Day approaches, Strange’s polling numbers aren’t sufficient to comfort his fans.
But as Election Day approaches, Strange’s polling numbers aren’t sufficient to comfort his fans. The two most recent major surveys have put Moore up by eight points and 14 points. And in August, Moore ended up outperforming his polling numbers once ballots were counted.
In the event that Strange loses on Tuesday, it certainly won’t be because Washington’s GOP didn’t put enough resources into supporting him. The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC with close ties to McConnell, pledged $10 million to support the incumbent leading up to August 15 and into the runoff campaign. And earlier this summer the McConnell-controlled National Republican Senatorial Committee warned GOP strategists not to assist Strange’s primary opponents.
Whoever wins the runoff on Tuesday will almost surely be the next senator from Alabama; the last time the state elected a Democratic senator was in 1992, and that man, Richard Shelby, switched his allegiance to the GOP just two years later. But even if this year’s senator-elect is “Ten Commandments Judge” Moore, the disruption he will bring to the Senate is unlikely to divide the Republican party any further than Trump already has.