Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.) limped into a GOP primary runoff Tuesday, getting less than a third of the vote in his bid to finish the term of former Sen. Jeff Sessions despite enjoying the backing of President Donald Trump.
In addition to support from Trump, Strange also had the strong backing of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his super PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund. That brought Strange almost $2 million in support to go along with his own campaign funds. Most of that outside money paid for ads hammering Strange’s two main opponents.
Strange edged out conservative Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), mainly because the conservative north Alabama congressman ran poorly in the southern part of the state. But Strange finished second overall to Roy Moore, a controversial former state Supreme Court chief justice, who has twice found himself removed from the bench.
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Moore led Strange by roughly 8 points late Tuesday night, with 75 percent of precincts reporting.
Many Christian conservatives view Moore as a hero, standing up for issues such as traditional marriage, God, and life, and willing to risk his career to do so. His first-place finish comes almost a year after his suspension as chief justice for instructing probate court judges to follow state law instead of a federal judge’s 2015 ruling striking down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.
Moore will face Strange in a runoff in six weeks. The winner of that contest will square off in December against Democrat Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney whose claim to fame is winning convictions against two men involved in Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. The defendants, Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry, had not been brought to justice at the time.
A survey conducted last week suggested that supporters of Brooks would divide roughly evenly between Moore and Strange in a runoff.
“Moore showed that he can do well other than [in] a judicial race,” said William Stewart, a University of Alabama political scientist and longtime observer of state politics.
Stewart said he views Moore as the front-runner in the runoff.
“You would have to assume people that voted for Brooks, if they return to the polls, would drift toward Moore,” he said. “They wanted something different, and Moore is different.”
Strange had money and name recognition, from his short stint as senator and as a two-term state attorney general before that. Moore and Brooks both tried to turn those advantages against him, arguing that his appointment by a now-disgraced governor was a corrupt bargain and that his support from McConnell and his “swamp critters” should be a signal for Alabama voters to reject him.
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Strange’s office was investigating the governor, Robert Bentley, at the time of the appointment. Bentley later resigned and plead guilty to a pair of misdemeanor charges related to campaign finance law. The plea deal came after allegations that Bentley misused taxpayer funds to facilitate an affair with an aide.
The senator’s opponents also accused him of dishonestly trying to claim credit for prosecuting the speaker of the state House of Representatives on corruption charges. Strange’s office handled the case, but he personally recused himself from any involvement in the case because his campaign had used a printing company owned by the speaker.
The results show the limits of Trump’s influence, even in a state where he remains popular — particularly among Republicans. He tweeted several times in support of Strange and recorded a phone message in support of his bid.
“It made many Alabamians feel [that] outsiders, who we’re always afraid of, were trying to determine who our United States senator is,” said Stewart.