It may take a crimson tide to keep former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore from coming to Washington.
The groups backing appointed Sen. Luther Strange (R) successfully carpet-bombed Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) into third place in the primary with millions of dollars of ads highlighting the congressman’s previous criticism of President Trump. But they face a much more daunting challenge in figuring out how to handle Moore, a well-known figure who’s beloved on the hard right for his virulently social conservative views and who is unlikely to see his base abandon him.
Moore took first place in Tuesday’s GOP primary for Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ old Senate with 39 percent of the vote, with Strange getting the second runoff spot with 33 percent after receiving huge financial support from groups aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
And while Moore has plenty of detractors in-state who see him as a fringe rabble-rouser, even Strange’s allies admit the race is an uphill battle — one where heavy attacks from Washington-based outside groups risk backfiring on their candidate in a state where voters detest being told what to do.
“Luther’s liabilities are how he got there and that the McConnell Washington crowd have been so heavy-handed in supporting him,” said one Alabama Republican strategist who supports Strange in the race.
“We’re a state full of folks who like to fight, who are defiant, we don’t like following rules, and that’s why Roy Moore is popular,” said David Azbell, a longtime Alabama GOP strategist. “A lot of folks think he can shoot off a lot of fireworks in D.C. while not doing a lot of harm.”
Alabama voters are also furious over a series of scandals that have rocked statehouse, and that taint got all over Strange with his appointment to the Senate. Strange had been the state attorney general in charge of the investigation into disgraced Gov. Robert Bentley (R) — until Bentley appointed him to fill Sessions’ seat shortly before Bentley was forced to resign over a sex scandal.
Some saw Bentley’s support as a quid-pro-quo to get Strange out of his business. That’s a problem when paired with the association with McConnell, who has become a bogeyman on the right.
“Any time you’re the incumbent and 70 percent of people voted against you it’s hard to bounce back,” said Alabama GOP strategist Chris Brown, who ran the campaign of the fourth-place finisher, state Sen. Trip Pittman (R), and is neutral in the runoff.
Azbell, who backed Pittman in the primary, dislikes Moore enough that he’s never voted for him, skipping his line on the ballot both times Moore was the GOP nominee and working against him in past primaries. But he’s ready to break with precedent.
“I really don’t want Mitch McConnell and Robert Bentley telling me who my senator is going to be,” he said.
Moore is already looking to jiu jitsu McConnell’s backing, blasting the “silk-stockinged Washington elitists” supporting Strange.
The attempt by the silk-stocking Washington elite to control the people of Alabama has failed!
— Judge Roy Moore (@MooreSenate) August 17, 2017
It’s not the first time that’s worked for him: Moore won back his judicial seat by running against, and handily defeating, another Bentley appointee in 2012.
Strange’s allies argue that Moore will struggle to grow his appeal outside of his intense core of loyal followers. But the combination of an off-year primary, voters’ intense dislike of the traditional GOP establishment both in-state and in D.C. create the perfect climate for a Moore insurgency.
“Roy Moore has the intensity,” said GOP strategist Jon Coley, a Strange supporter. “Roy will turn his people out. Luther’s got to turn his people out and find a bunch more.”
The big question is how to do that.
The appointed senator will need to boost his support in a big way in the state’s more urban business communities — especially in and around Huntsville, Brooks’ base — and his allies worry that a deeply negative race may just turn off voters and convince them to stay home, leaving Moore with his rabid but limited base of support with the upper hand.
The strategy from the pro-McConnell Senate Leadership Fund of playing for a Strange runoff with Moore by destroying Brooks paid off. And while they’re off TV right now, they offered a glimpse of how they plan to attack Moore going forward, with ads attacking him for taking a $1 million salary from the Christian organization he runs and for flying on private airplanes with the organization’s money. A Washington Republican strategist said the group is now finalizing their strategy for the runoff.
Moore has deep support on the hard right for his repeated stands athwart the tide of social change — in a state whose official motto is “We dare defend our rights.”
Moore has twice been forced from the state Supreme Court bench for disobeying court orders, first for installing, then refusing to remove, a monument to the Ten Commandments outside his courthouse, then just a few years ago for ordering his state to ignore the Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing gay marriage nationwide.
And Strange faces another challenge, with one of his best surrogates sidelined and another being notoriously unpredictable.
Sessions is a close ally — Strange helped on his campaigns and followed him as state attorney general. But Sessions doesn’t plan to have any involvement in the race because of the ethical constraints of his current job.
And while President Trump’s endorsement was a huge boost for Strange in the first round, it’s unclear what he’ll do going forward.
Trump’s tweets and a late robocall backing Strange likely helped boost him to second place and kept alive his hopes of staying in Washington. But Trump hasn’t been unequivocal in his support. The president’s reaction to the runoff result was a pair of tweets congratulating both candidates — and himself.
Congratulation to Roy Moore and Luther Strange for being the final two and heading into a September runoff in Alabama. Exciting race!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 16, 2017
Wow, Senator Luther Strange picked up a lot of additional support since my endorsement. Now in September runoff. Strong on Wall & Crime!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 16, 2017
“What Trump does from here will be interesting to see. Luther must be holding his breath that Trump doesn’t have another post-Charlottesville and start flip-flopping on this. I’m holding my breath if I’m in his camp that this thing sticks for six weeks,” said the Alabama strategist supporting Strange.
It’s unclear how the next six weeks will shape up. But one thing’s for sure, according to Coley: “It’s going to be nasty.”