If You Ain’t First, You’re Last, Luther
What #ALSen Means For The GOP In The Age Of Trump
By David de la Fuente
2017 has been an interesting year in Alabama politics. Donald Trump became President, winning 62% of the state’s vote. The state’s long-time Republican Senator Jeff Sessions became his Attorney General. And the power to appoint a new Senator fell upon scandal-plagued Republican Governor Robert Bentley — who may or may not have been under investigation by the Republican state Attorney General Luther Strange. In a move that would make Rod Blagojevich proud, Bentley appointed Strange to the state’s open Senate seat, freeing the Governor up to appoint a new state Attorney General potentially less likely to investigate him.
But the house of cards came tumbling down anyway. The Republican-controlled state house decided to begin the impeachment process against Bentley and so he resigned, taking a plea bargain for knowingly converting campaign contributions for personal use. Luther Strange was supposed to weather the storm. Though his initial Senate appointment was only temporary, Bentley was kind enough to schedule the special election to coincide with the 2018 general, in hopes of helping Strange establish himself in the meantime and giving him a better chance of retaining his seat.
Aren’t We Moving A Little Fast?
Unfortunately for Strange, this year was about to get even more interesting. Bentley’s successor, Governor Kay Ivey, wasn’t having any of it. She said that the people of Alabama should get to elect Jeff Sessions’ Senate replacement now, rather than waiting for 2018. On top of that, the law clearly stated that an election should occur “as soon as possible,” so once again it appeared the law wasn’t on Bentley’s side. Ivey used her authority to move the election up, scheduling a primary in August, a runoff in September, and the general election in December of this year. That meant instead of having a whole year on the job to convince Republican primary voters that he could be an effective Senator for them, Strange was left with only six months — in a state that has never reelected an appointed Senator. Potential opponents saw blood in the water.
A Candidate For Every Commandment
When candidate filing was done in May, nine other Republicans had stepped up to challenge Luther Strange to create a 10-candidate primary field. Two in particular were very big threats. The first, Congressman Mo Brooks of Huntsville, was a Tea Party-aligned Member of the House who could count on a base that would be geographically unique from Birmingham-native Luther Strange. The other was twice-reprimanded former Alabama State Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore. Moore was first elected to the Court in 2000, but he was kicked out of office three years later for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument he installed on state grounds. He lost gubernatorial primaries in 2006 and 2010 — but he managed to get a third of the vote (against an incumbent, no less) in 2006 and had to split his base with another Christian conservative candidate in 2010. Moore’s luck turned around two years later, when he was elected to another term on the state Supreme Court in 2012 — before being suspended in 2016 for refusing to accept the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized marriage for gay and lesbian couples nationwide.
What Moore lacked in money, he made up for in infamy–or for those likely to vote in a special election Republican primary, positive name recognition.
In this year’s election, Moore has run a shoestring campaign, raising less than $500K compared to Strange’s impressive $2.9 million haul. Brooks came in somewhere in between, having raised slightly more than $500K but spending close to $1 million thanks to leftover campaign cash from his House races. Strange also had the benefit of a presidential endorsement from Donald Trump and massive outside spending from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s political network. However, what Moore lacked in money, he made up for in infamy–or for those likely to vote in a special election Republican primary, positive name recognition.
So in last month’s primary, Moore beat out Strange for first place 39% to 33%, with Brooks coming in third with 20% of the vote. Since no candidate received 50% of the vote, the state’s election rules require Moore and Strange to face off again in a September 26th runoff. While endorsements can oftentimes be overstated in their importance, Brooks coming out in favor of Moore in the runoff is indicative of how many of the 28% of Republicans who didn’t vote for either Strange or Moore in the first round still voted to reject their incumbent Senator. That will be a heavy lift for Strange even with his national support.
Do As Trump Does, Not As He Says
President Trump is wildly popular in Alabama. According to Gallup’s 50 state poll from July, he sports a 55% job approval rating, which makes it his 6th best state in the nation. And according to a September poll from Time for Choosing (paid for by a pro-Moore PAC it should be noted), Trump had an 83% favorability rating with likely Republican runoff voters. And that same poll found that 83% of all respondents were aware that Trump had endorsed Strange. So why isn’t his endorsement translating into success for Strange?
Most polls show that while Strange is viewed mostly favorably by Republicans (with between 40% and 60% of voters having a positive impression of him, depending on the pollster), Roy Moore is simply more popular.
This dynamic isn’t necessarily new. Over the last few years, the Alabama Forestry Association has been polling a potential 2018 gubernatorial primary involving both Moore and Strange. In 2015, they found Moore winning and Strange coming in second with 32% and 19% of the vote, respectively. Last year, the results were nearly identical: Moore came in first with 28% of the vote, followed by Strange with 19%. So Moore being a political force, especially against Strange, is something that actually predates the Trump presidency.
At their core, Trump and Moore are both populists — Trump with a nativist strain and Moore with a Christian conservative one. It makes sense that voters who went for Trump so early and hard (Trump won Alabama big on Super Tuesday, when establishment Republicans still had high hopes of defeating him) would also support Moore. In fact, despite the Trump endorsement of Strange, the Opinion Savvy poll from August found Moore leading Strange by 25% among those who strongly approve of Trump. Strange only led with voters who disapproved of the President — which is not a winning coalition in a Republican primary in Alabama.
Every runoff poll has shown Moore leading Strange, sometimes by single digits and sometimes by large double digits. Even a poll conducted by Mitch McConnell’s political network, which has gone all-in for Strange, showed Moore winning the runoff. At this point, it looks increasingly likely that Roy Moore will be the Republican nominee for Senate in Alabama. But Trump has also decided to go all in for Strange including a rally in Huntsville the weekend before the runoff. If Strange pulls off a win, he might very well have Trump to thank, but that is looking less and less likely by the day.
Does It Matter Who The Republicans Nominate?
From an ideological or policy standpoint, there really isn’t a reason for Alabama Republicans to dislike Strange. As a Senator, he has voted with Trump 91.9% of the time since taking office in February. He’s only split from the President on three votes: twice when he voted to impose sanctions on Russia (bills that passed 97–2 & 98–2), and once when he voted against an appropriations bill that eventually passed 79–18. There isn’t really any room for Moore to get to Strange’s right when it comes to policy positions.
Strange might not be the strongest candidate in the world, but Moore is perhaps the worst Republicans could offer as a general election candidate.
But from a political standpoint, it absolutely would make a difference if Alabama Republicans select Moore in the runoff. Strange might not be the strongest candidate in the world, but Moore is perhaps the worst Republicans could offer as a general election candidate. In his reelection to Attorney General in 2014, Strange turned in that year’s narrowest margin of victory statewide, beating his Democratic opponent by 17 points. But that’s nearly five times wider than the 3.5-point margin with which Moore won his Supreme Court election in 2012 — and that was in a Presidential election year, on the same ballot where Mitt Romney won by 22 points. If Moore prevails in the September runoff, Democrats could have a real chance to make this a competitive election. Their nominee is former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, who in the 1990s prosecuted two of the perpetrators of the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, in which four young African-American girls were murdered. He is a respectable candidate who could have wide-ranging appeal outside of the typical Democratic base, especially if he is up against a man who has twice been removed from office for his refusal to comply with the law like Moore.
The only poll of the general election matchup thus far shows Moore beating Jones 44% to 40% (with Strange also ahead of Jones 43% to 40%). It is actually fairly easy for a serious Democratic candidate to get 40% in Alabama (Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks, a popular Democrat, got 42% in the 2010 Governor’s election). But there is deep political racial polarization seen across the Deep South, with 80%+ of African-American usually voting Democratic and the same percentage of Whites voting Republican. So, it will be very difficult for Jones to get to 50%. In fact, the closest Alabama Democrats have ever come to beating a Republican in the last decade was against Moore in 2012. The amount of undecideds in the poll cited above gives hope that there might possibly be enough White voters willing to switch over just this once because of both national and candidate-specific factors.
If Strange loses the runoff on September 26th, President Trump will be zero for two major Congressional primary endorsements (after supporting Rep. Renee Ellmers’ failed bid for reelection in North Carolina last year). While the President considers supporting 2018 primary challengers to Republican Senators who have failed to fall in line — like Arizona’s Jeff Flake, Nevada’s Dean Heller, and Tennessee’s Bob Corker — what we’re seeing in Alabama suggests that it may be more important that a candidate tap into the spirit of Trump than that he or she have the President’s seal of approval. And as for Alabama itself, if Moore wins the runoff and faces off against Jones in December’s general election, it will be Democrat’s first post-2016 opportunity to embrace the broad path, 50-state Senate strategy they’ll need to take back the majority.
David de la Fuente is a political analyst at Third Way.