Alabama GOP Insurgent Poised to Deliver Establishment Stinging Defeat
Victory by wild-card outsider Roy Moore could make him 'most interesting senator since Huey Long'
Alabama Republicans seem poised to deliver a stunning rebuke to the GOP Establishment in a Senate primary runoff this month.
Firebrand social conservative Roy Moore —who twice ran afoul of judicial ethics rules while serving on the state Supreme Court — leads in most polls over Sen. Luther Strange, who won appointment to the seat from an ethically compromised governor who later resigned in disgrace. Voters will decide the race on Sept. 26. The winner will be favored over Democrat Doug Jones in the December general election to fill the seat previously held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Moore first rose to prominence in the 1990s, when the American Civil Liberties Union sued him over a wooden Ten Commandment plaque he kept in his Etowah County courtroom when he was a circuit judge. He has spent much of his career as an underdog. In 2000, he defeated a much better-funded candidate in the Republican primary on his way to becoming chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.
He lost that job after he refused a federal judge's order to remove a Ten Commandments monument he had installed in the Alabama Judicial Building, prompting a judicial ethics panel to remove him from office. Two failed runs for governor later, many counted him out when he sought a comeback in 2012. But he beat the sitting chief justice and a former state attorney general in the GOP primary without even needing a runoff on his way to reclaiming his old job.
Moore later resigned after the judicial ethics panel suspended him for seeking to undermine the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling legalizing same-sex marriage.
"So if you like the way things are going in Washington, you ought to ratify the status quo with Luther Strange."
Moore once again faces a better-financed opponent. Strange has spent $2.3 million to Moore's $290,000, according to campaign finance records. And that does not even include the nearly $3 million spent in support of Strange by the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC closely aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Yet most political experts in the state rate Moore as a heavy favorite.
"Well, it is different," Moore told LifeZette in an interview. "It feels a little different because I've always been the underdog. And now it seems I'm leading. I'm facing a lot stiffer challenges out of Washington."
Potential Setback for McConnell
A win by Moore would be a setback for McConnell and an embarrassment for President Donald Trump, who waded into the race before the first round of voting by endorsing Strange. Moore responded by suggesting last week that McConnell should be replaced as majority leader. As for Trump, he cast himself as a rock-solid supporter of the president's goals.
"I wish he would've endorsed me," he said. "But he didn't. And I don't have a personal communication with him. I don't think he knows me and what I stand for … I'm still supporting the agenda that the president supports. I think we can make America great again."
How does Moore reconcile his steadfast defense of Christian principles with his strong support of a president with a long history of suspect personal conduct, who has deviated from those values?
"That's easy. Who hasn't?" he said. "I believe God had a purpose in putting Donald Trump in as president. And I think God knows better than I do."
Strange's campaign did not respond to a request for an interview. But he has argued throughout the campaign that his is best-suited to take the baton from Sessions on conservative issues and to implement the Trump agenda issues such as immigration and health care reform.
Moore pushed back against the notion that he cares about moral values but little of the major issues that come before the Senate.
"I'm not one-dimensional. I've been painted as that because I have cultural and social sentiments, yes," he said. "But you know I understand the policies on immigration and free trade and taxation and regulations."
Strange's camp, however, seized on an interview Moore gave to a local talk-radio host last week in which he expressed unfamiliarity with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program created by former President Barack Obama to grant quasi-amnesty to illegal immigrants brought to America as children.
It might not matter.
Strange's 'Dark Bentley Baggage'
Jess Brown, a political scientist from Athens State University, said Strange holds the office but never has been blessed by the people. He noted that Strange has been dogged by the appearance of impropriety in accepting an appointment from then-Gov. Robert Bentley while the governor was under investigation by Strange's office for misusing state funds to cover up an affair with an aide.
"This is different because Luther Strange is dragging around dark Bentley baggage," he said. "[Republicans have] still got fire in the belly about Robert Bentley. They felt they were misled all the way around."
Strange also has not been able to count on the help of defeated primary opponents, who might ordinarily be expected to rally around the Establishment candidate in a runoff against a wild-card insurgent. Fourth-place finisher Trip Pittman, a state senator who represents the kind of upscale suburbs most disposed to support a business conservative like Strange, has thrown his support to Moore.
"He's someone who's strong in his convictions and strong in his philosophy," he said. "I think it's the leadership traits [more than differences with Strange in positions on the issues]. That's a very, very big part of elected office."
Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), the target of many of the attack ads financed by the McConnell-aligned super PAC during the primary, has not officially endorsed either candidate. But in an interview with LifeZette, he took a dig at Strange.
"Basically, it comes down to this: We had a $439 billion deficit in fiscal year 2015, and a $537 billion deficit in fiscal year 2016," he said. "This fiscal year, we're looking at a deficit in the neighborhood of $700 billion. So if you like the way things are going in Washington, you ought to ratify the status quo with Luther Strange."
Brown said Moore is a good bet to give McConnell headaches if he wins and has a populist streak that could deviate from typical Republican priorities. As a comparison, he cited a well-known Louisiana populist.
"[Moore] is potentially going to be the most interesting senator since Huey Long was there in the '30s," he said. "I just don't see him being a team player."