The biggest thing in between controversial former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore (R) and the U.S. Senate is Donald Trump.
Heading into election day on Tuesday, the question is whether the president and the GOP establishment have been able to do enough to push their favored candidate, appointed Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL), into a runoff where they think they can defeat a man best known for his anti-gay and religious right stances.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and his donor network have gone all-in for Strange, a former state attorney general and lobbyist who was appointed to the Senate after Jeff Sessions left to become attorney general.
With $4 million in negative ads attacking Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) for his earlier criticism of Trump and the president’s last-minute support in a state where he’s immensely popular with the GOP base, they’re feeling confident that they’ve put their man into the top two in the race ahead of a likely runoff on Sept. 28.
But public and private polling indicates Moore is likely to finish in first place in Tuesday’s election. If Strange does manage to edge Brooks on Tuesday — a likelihood but no guarantee, as some polls show a tight race between them — his allies are ready to spend at least as much for him in what they expect to be a competitive runoff.
“I’m not inclined to believe Moore can’t win this race,” said Ford O’Connell, a national GOP strategist who did some work on Strange’s 2010 race for attorney general. “A lot of folks in Alabama are looking for someone who’s a lot more fiery. They’re looking beyond the usual business conservative wing, they’re looking for ideologues who represent them.”
Strategists involved in the race say Trump has been a huge boon to Strange as he looks to push past Brooks in the first round. The president tweeted his support last week, did so again on Monday, and according to Strange allies he recorded a last-minute robocall ahead of the primary.
Luther Strange of the Great State of Alabama has my endorsement. He is strong on Border & Wall, the military, tax cuts & law enforcement.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 14, 2017
Moore has built a base of ardent evangelical Christian support in his two decades of attacking gay people and refusing to follow other court rulings. Strange allies think Moore has a hard ceiling of support, as evidenced by his poor showing in a pair of past gubernatorial runs. But they’re not taking any chances: The Senate Leadership Fund, the super-PAC aligned with McConnell, has already begun airing ads tearing apart Moore for taking a $1 million salary from the Christian non-profit he runs.
“Our goal has always been to make the runoff. We’ve been playing for second place all along, to get Luther Strange into the runoff and take it from there,” said Senate Leadership Fund spokesman Chris Pack.
Trump’s endorsement is huge, as his favorable numbers remain in the 80s among Alabama Republican primary voters.
“The fact that the president endorsed him I think is a huge game-changer. Going into this election tomorrow the whole goal was to get into the runoff with Roy Moore, he has this solid base of support,” Perry Hooper Jr., a Strange backer who was the Alabama chairman of Trump’s 2016 campaign, told TPM.
Moore, a former judge, is best known for his pair of high-profile stances against “activist judges” — both of which cost him his own robes.
In 2003, he was removed from Alabama’s Supreme Court after installing, then refusing to remove, a two-and-a-half-ton monument to the Ten Commandments outside his courthouse. After a pair of disappointing runs for governor, he won back his state Supreme Court seat in 2012 over a recently appointed judge.
He was soon suspended from court once again after ordering state judges to disobey the U.S. Supreme Court and refuse to give marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
“Is there such a thing as morality anymore?” Moore said at the time. “Sodomy for centuries was declared to be against the laws of nature and nature’s God. And now if you say that in public, and I guess I am, am I violating somebody’s civil rights? Have we elevated morality to immorality? Do we call good, bad?”
In between, he said Congress should bar Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) from office because he’s a Muslim, and declared that when the Founding Fathers talked about God-given rights of “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” they were talking about a Christian God. “Buddha didn’t create us, Mohammed didn’t create us, it was the God of the Holy Scriptures,” he said.
He’s hardly softened his tone in this race. In a recent op-ed, he pledged to stop “Obama-era policies of using our troops as social experiments and keep them focused on what they do best” and called liberal judges “the single largest threat to our country’s existence.”
In an interview just last week, he defended Russian strongman Vladimir Putin while criticizing the U.S. for allowing same-sex marriage.
Republicans quietly say that if Moore wins the nomination it might actually put the seat in jeopardy, though they’re skeptical any Republican could lose statewide in Alabama. A Moore win, however, might not be any more pleasant for McConnell over the next few years.
Strange is no moderate squish himself. As state attorney general, he was involved in many lawsuits against the federal government, including a push to overturn federal rules protecting transgender students in the classroom and battles against Obama-era EPA standards. But Republicans acknowledge his ties to McConnell aren’t helpful — nor are his longstanding connections to the country club wing of the Alabama GOP, including disgraced former Gov. Robert Bentley (R), who appointed him to the seat shortly before resigning.
And it’s no guarantee that the voters who back Brooks in the first round will gravitate towards Strange over Moore. Many supporters of Brooks, a hardline fiscal conservative, are just as anti-establishment as Moore’s. And it remains to be seen whether Brooks’ high-profile right-wing pundit backers including Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Mark Levin and Laura Ingraham decide to fall in line or back Trump’s pick in the second round.
“I think it doesn’t matter if Roy Moore gets caught shooting someone tomorrow, he’s still going to get that base support of 30 to 35 percent. I’m not sure where the Mo Brooks supporters will go,” said Hooper. “But I do think Donald Trump is a major part of this.”