Controversial former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore has crushed Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL) and the entire Republican establishment, a victory that could have major reverberations in Washington and in the 2018 midterms.
The Associated Press has called the primary runoff for Moore, an iconoclastic social conservative, who led Strange by 57 percent to 43 percent with 45 percent of precincts counted.
His victory is a blow to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), whose allies spent close to $10 million trying to boost Strange and stop Moore, and shows the limitations of an endorsement from President Trump, who agreed to back Strange and stumped for him in the race’s closing days.
Moore is a hardline religious conservative who was twice kicked off the Alabama Supreme Court for refusing to obey the rule of law and disregarding higher court rulings, first for erecting then refusing to remove a monument of the ten commandments a decade ago then for rejecting the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing gay marriage.
He’s said “homosexual conduct should be illegal,” suggested the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks happened because America has turned away from God, and claimed that parts of the American Midwest were living under Muslim Sharia law.
But in spite of those controversial views (and with many base voters, because of them) Moore cruised to first place in the first round of voting and easily bested Strange in the runoff.
That was as much due to Strange’s own problems as Moore’s strengths. McConnell’s support is a two-edged sword given his unpopularity with large segments of the Republican base. A bigger problem was Strange’s appointment by then-Gov. Robert Bentley (R), who was forced to resign under cloud of a sex scandal. Strange, as attorney general, had been in charge of investigating him, and many voters saw the appointment as fishy.
Even Trump couldn’t save him from those issues, showing the limits of his pull with GOP base voters, especially when he gets crossways with them.
Moore’s primary win pours gasoline on the anti-establishment fire burning through the GOP base. Conservative voters are irate that Republicans haven’t been able to get more done in Washington. Serious Trump-fueled primary challengers are already threatening Sens. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Dean Heller (R-NV) from the right, Sen. Bob Corker’s (R-TN) Tuesday decision to retire opens the door for a potentially bloody open-seat primary, and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) may get a primary challenge as well.
“We’re already witnessing some of that every day,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) warned reporters Tuesday afternoon about the base fervor against McConnell and the status quo.
Top establishment Republicans were looking to spin a possible Strange loss away even before polls had closed, blaming circumstances unique to the state.
“Races, particularly special elections are hard to read into,” National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Cory Gardner (R-CO) told TPM Tuesday afternoon, even as he insisted that Strange would win. “This is particularly unique due to the governor of Alabama’s activities.”
Strange made a point to thank Trump, who had to be convinced to come in to back him at the last minute, but not McConnell, whose allies spent huge to help him, in his statement admitting defeat.
“I am especially grateful for the support of President Trump and Vice President Pence, as well as the strong example set by my friends Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions. I congratulate Roy Moore on the result this evening,” he said in a statement.
While Trump eventually came in to back Strange, many of his allies threw their support to Moore, a rabble-rousing outsider who has a lot more in common temperamentally with the president than his endorsed candidate. Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon used his website Breitbart to rally hard for Moore, and Trump backers from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) to Fox News host Sean Hannity supported him as well.
Trump congratulated Moore on the results — though he initially got the timing of the general election wrong before sending a corrected tweet saying it was in December, not November.
Congratulations to Roy Moore on his Republican Primary win in Alabama. Luther Strange started way back & ran a good race. Roy, WIN in Dec!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 27, 2017
The Senate Leadership Fund, a McConnell-affiliated group that spent close to $10 million on the race, put out a statement conceding defeat even before the AP called the race.
“We are proud to have fought alongside President Trump and the NRA in support of a dedicated conservative who has loyally supported this President and his agenda,” SLF President Steven Law said in a statement sent shortly after 9 p.m. EST. “While we were honored to have fought hard for Big Luther, Judge Roy Moore won this nomination fair and square and he has our support, as it is vital that we keep this seat in Republican hands.”
That’s a strong likelihood — but no guarantee. Democrats are excited about their nominee, former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, and believe that Moore’s divisive views have a small chance of giving them a shot in the race.
“Voters can’t look past Roy Moore’s fringe beliefs, habit of putting himself first and his dishonesty. Even Republicans have said Moore is unfit to serve and spent millions to keep him out of office. Doug Jones is a man of character and integrity, who is unafraid to stand up for what’s right and has a proven record of independence that will serve Alabama families in the U.S. Senate,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) said in a statement.
Trump carried the state by a lopsided 62 percent to 34 percent, however, and while Republicans quietly grumble they may have to spend some money for Moore they’re not yet that worried that he could blow the race.
And if Moore does make it to Washington, he’s guaranteed to be a thorn in the side of McConnell and GOP leadership — as he made clear in a primary victory speech that sounded much more like a sermon than a stump speech.
“We have to return the knowledge of God and the Constitution of the United States to Congress,” he declared.
This story was last updated at 10:15 p.m. EST.