If not for a surprise intervention by the president of the United States, the trajectory of the GOP special Senate primary in Alabama tomorrow looked likely to result in the defeat of appointed senator Luther Strange, and a runoff between right-wing congressman Mo Brooks and the legendary Ten Commandments judge, Roy Moore. And that was with Strange dominating the airwaves with ads, mostly paid for by Mitch McConnell’s super-pac.
Mr. Strange is wheezing into Tuesday’s Republican Senate primary here. He is grasping to secure a second-place finish and a slot in a September runoff with Roy S. Moore, the twice-deposed former State Supreme Court justice and evangelical-voter favorite who is expected to be the top vote-getter but may fall short of the majority needed to win outright.
The senator’s problem is twofold:
Mr. Strange is in a political vise, pinched by his links to a pair of Republicans, one local and one national, held in low esteem by many in the party here: the disgraced former Gov. Robert Bentley, who appointed Mr. Strange, and Mr. McConnell.
In case you’re just tuning in to the Alabama psychodrama, Strange was temporarily appointed to the seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions by disgraced and soon-to-resign-in-a-plea-deal governor Robert Bentley, who destroyed his career with a sex-and-corruption scandal that seemed to go on forever. Trouble is, Strange, then the state’s attorney general, had helped head off impeachment proceedings against Bentley not long before the appointment. He has not been able to shake the implication of a corrupt bargain with the Luv Guv; as one Alabama voter put it, he’s “got too many Bentley cooties on him.”
The McConnell connection could have been deadly, too, given Donald Trump’s recent war of words with the Senate majority leader. The 45th president, you see, is wildly popular among Alabama Republicans. The three main Senate candidates have all pledged slavish fealty to Trump, and both Brooks and Moore were using McConnell’s alleged betrayal of the mogul to blast Strange. And then Trump dropped the hammer on them.
The Trump endorsement probably put paid to Brooks’s hopes of catching up with Strange by tomorrow. But Moore, who until recently avoided much of the crossfire between Strange and Brooks, has a lock on a position in the September 26 runoff that will be held if no one wins a majority in the first round.
The two polls taken since the endorsement do indeed show Moore and Strange in a runoff, though with different levels of support. A Trafalgar Group survey has Moore with a solid lead at 38 percent, with Strange at 24 percent, and Brooks at 17 percent. An Emerson College poll with a higher margin of error than Trafalgar’s shows Strange at 32 percent narrowly leading Moore at 29 percent, with Brooks totally out of the running at 15 percent. Some think Trump’s endorsement could boost turnout, which had been expected to be down in the 20 to 25 percent range, but again, it’s not like Trumpites appear to be snake-dancing to the polls to back Big Luther.
A Moore-Strange runoff would certainly be a contrast in style if not substance (nobody in Alabama GOP politics would be caught dead exhibiting anything like moderation at the moment). Strange’s already massive financial advantage would be inflated by money from an Alabama business community fearful of the economic-development consequences of the state being represented in Washington by a grim theocrat and media magnet like Roy Moore (who was once removed and much later suspended as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court). But Moore has a hard-core following in the state, and having pretty much declared independence of everyone and everything other than the angry Old Testament God he appears to worship, the Judge is the ultimate “outsider” in contrast to the consummate insider Luther Strange. In any event, there will be plenty of thunder and lightning during the six-week runoff.
Particularly if Moore wins the GOP nomination, tomorrow’s Democratic primary might be more relevant than it’s been in many years. The drama there is the effort of consensus party favorite Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney, to overcome the name-generated popularity of an obscure businessman named Robert Kennedy Jr. (no relation to the Massachusetts family of that name). Jones has sought to get some attention by securing endorsements from famous out-of-state Democrats like Joe Biden and John Lewis. If Jones manages to win without a runoff, then Republicans will rightly congratulate Governor Kay Ivy (Bentley’s replacement) for recently signing a bill keeping voters from participating in one party’s primary and the other’s runoff. Otherwise, there might be a sudden upsurge in Democrats-for-Moore enthusiasm as the GOP runoff approached. Political alliances in Alabama are hard to predict.