In an unlikely barn-burner race from the heart of Trump Country, appointed GOP senator Luther Strange (named to the seat by soon-to-resign Governor Robert Bentley after Jeff Sessions resigned to become attorney general) will face Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore in a special election primary runoff on Tuesday. And though it’s always difficult to poll special elections, the weight of the evidence says that despite massive support from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue — President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — Strange is in serious danger of losing.
As recently as Friday night, when Donald Trump spoke for 85 minutes at a rally for Strange in Huntsville, public polling was showing Strange finally beginning to chip away at the big lead Moore built immediately after finishing first in the August 15 first round, while private polling commissioned by Strange’s backers suggested a close race. But two public polls taken after this event have probably created some panic in Strange’s camp. A Trafalgar Group survey of more than 1,000 likely primary voters showed Moore up by a huge 57/41 margin (with leaners counted). And a Cygnal/L2 poll of nearly 1,000 likely voters show Moore up by a slightly smaller margin — 52/41 — but leading in nearly every voter demographic, with little sign that Trump’s campaigning had made any difference.
Aside from the possibility that Trump’s endorsement (and some Monday campaigning by Vice-President Mike Pence) are slowly sinking in, Strange’s chances for a win may depend on a stronger-than-expected turnout generated by all the national attention and by the $15 million or so ($9 million alone from Mitch McConnell’s PAC, and another million from the NRA’s PAC) spent on the incumbent’s campaign, which is real money for Alabama. Turnout in the August primary was, after all, only 18 percent. Alabama’s secretary of State estimates runoff turnout will be even lower, at 15 percent. If so, that almost certainly helps Moore with his intensely loyal Christian Right following. There won’t be any late upsets created by absentee ballots unless it’s crazy close: Alabama has no in-person early voting and requires excuses for absentee voting. It’s all about Election Day.
Perhaps informed of evidence that his rally for Strange didn’t necessarily pull his candidate across the line, the president called in to a syndicated Alabama drive-time radio show this morning and twice refers to Roy Moore as “Ray.” After one of the hosts finally corrected him, Trump tried to pivot into a suggestion that Moore was not well-known enough to win the general election. That’s not a very credible argument, since after decades of theocratic antics and five statewide campaigns, Moore is probably better known in Alabama than Trump, or than anyone else this side of University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban. This wasn’t the first time Trump made comments about Moore that probably didn’t help Strange: Today and on Friday night he went out of his way to promise he’ll campaign for the judge if he wins the GOP nomination.
Ultimately, if Strange loses it will be because a state GOP primary electorate full of Trump supporters was more interested in punishing him as an allegedly corrupt symbol of the hated state and national GOP Establishment than in rewarding him for winning Trump’s personal endorsement. The latter factor was mitigated by the sheer number of well-known Trump fans who disregarded the boss’s endorsement and went to bat for Judge Roy: former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon and his Breitbart News; Sean Hannity; Ann Coulter; Sarah Palin; Mike Huckabee; Nigel Farage; Mark Levin; and, most remarkable, Trump’s own HUD Secretary Ben Carson. As Palin put it, Moore was the candidate of the Trump Movement. That lent credence to Moore’s own claim that the president had been misled by Mitch McConnell and others in sinful Washington in choosing to endorse Big Luther.
Instead of trying to improve his own popularity, Strange put virtually all his eggs into the Trump basket, achieving (particularly in his one debate with Moore) a level of sycophancy that did not necessarily wear well on voters who knew that Judge Roy would smite Trump’s liberal foes in Washington hip and thigh as well. Meanwhile, Strange and his allies chose the very difficult strategy of trying to run to Moore’s right instead of exploiting fears (especially in Alabama’s business community) that the once-removed-from-office and once-suspended-from-office judge would embarrass them in the Senate. The millions of dollars in ads aimed at Moore accused the grim moralist of being a “career politician” trying to feather his own nest. It was a tough sell, particularly compared to the easier route of pointing to evidence that Moore is an extremist with a screw or two loose.
In fact, in remarks on election eve, it looked like Strange might finally have become desperate enough to contend that it was possible — not likely, but possible — to be too right-wing for Alabama Republicans: He compared Moore to Todd Akins, the 2012 Missouri Senate candidate who threw away a sure win against Democrat Claire McCaskill by wandering off into speculation about conception and rape in defense of his extremist views on abortion. But then Strange went on to make the hilarious contention that Moore has the judicial record of a liberal Democrat.
None of these attacks on Moore have done much to free the incumbent from the burden of suspicions that he cut a corrupt bargain with disgraced former governor Robert Bentley to secure his Senate seat, and that he’s in an equally corrupt partnership with Mitch McConnell, who has not only raised most of the money for Big Luther but was backing him to the hilt before Trump got involved. The first primary was a big gang-up on Strange, and that’s continued as the third-, fourth-, and fifth-placed candidates on August 15 have all endorsed the judge. Indeed, Team Strange chose Huntsville as the site of Trump’s rally for their candidate because it’s the home base of U.S. Representative Mo Brooks, who won 20 percent of the vote and then endorsed Moore.
For election watchers Tuesday night, Huntsville’s Madison County will indeed be a bellwether, and if Strange isn’t piling up big margins in his home base of metro Birmingham, that will be a very bad sign for him.
Either way, the GOP special primary has been a large gift to Democratic nominee Doug Jones, not thought to have a realistic chance at all at the beginning of this campaign. A September 11 Emerson College poll showed Jones just a few points behind either Republican. Whether or not that is accurate, Jones should get a boost from either the stark reality of what a Senator Roy Moore would do to Alabama’s already shaky image, or from many months of accumulated bad feelings about Luther Strange. The road ahead will be determined by a small number of GOP runoff voters reacting to a very strange — no pun intended — intraparty contest.