The Alabama GOP Senate race is headed to a September runoff, with incumbent Sen. Luther Strange — who had the backing of both President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — set to face-off against conservative favorite Roy Moore.
With about two-thirds of the vote in, the AP reported that the contest was going to a runoff. Moore, a controversial former state Supreme Court chief justice, finished first in Tuesday's balloting, getting 41% of the vote to Strange's 32%. Rep. Mo Brooks was a distant third with almost 20%.
Strange has an uphill climb against Moore in next month's runoff, where the winner will face the Democratic nominee, Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney who successfully prosecuted two Ku Klux Klan members involved in the 1963 Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four young girls.
Moore may not have had Trump's explicit blessing in the primary, but local observers said he was the candidate much more cut from the same cloth as the president, and his campaign was all about running against the political establishment. In his victory speech Tuesday night, he blasted Strange's campaign as being bankrolled by "silk stocking Washington elitists" who failed in getting the incumbent fully across the finish line.
That anti-establishment strain is how Moore gained national notoriety in the first place. After refusing to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from a state judicial building despite a federal court order, Moore was removed from his position atop the state's court in 2003. In 2012, he was elected to the same post again but was suspended after he ordered judges to enforce Alabama's ban on same-sex marriage despite the Supreme Court's 2015 decision legalizing it nationwide. He resigned earlier this year to challenge Strange.
His ads were downright Trumpian, promising to "Drain the Swamp" and equating Strange with McConnell and Democrats who were trying to stymie the president's agenda.
That's why it was so surprising when Trump tweeted out his endorsement last week on Strange's behalf — just a day before he began a very public feud with McConnell, the Senate GOP leader he blamed for the demise of efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
Strange benefited from millions of dollars the McConnell-aligned super PAC Senate Leadership Fund spent on his behalf, and the ads targeted both Moore and Brooks.
That cash edge helped him overcome the dubious circumstances that led to his appointment to the Senate to fill the seat of now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. As the former state attorney general, Strange was investigating then-Gov. Robert Bentley for misusing his office to hide his extramarital affair. Bentley appointed Strange to the Senate seat, but under threat of impeachment the governor ended up resigning anyway. New Gov. Kay Ivey moved the special election up to this year shortly after she took office.
The cloud hanging over his appointment by Bentley certainly didn't help Strange. But Trump's endorsement may have helped negate that and the shroud of McConnell — who certainly isn't popular among the GOP base in the state. The president returned to Twitter on Tuesday to reinforce his support for Strange.
Brooks, who unlike his two top opponents had never been elected statewide, languished in third place for most of the race, but he tried to seize upon the president's fight with McConnell in the closing days to make a run at Strange. He attacked the GOP majority leader in his closing ad and affixed a "Ditch Mitch" sign to his campaign bus. However, Brooks also had been no fan of Trump early in the primary, and although he was trying to run close to the president now, the attack ads against him revived his hits against Trump back from the 2016 campaign.
State observers predict that Moore will be tough to beat in the runoff, given his fervent evangelical Christian base that he's actually managed to expand during this race. But if Trump — who remains very popular in the state — makes a big effort on Strange's behalf, it could have an outsized impact as well.
If Moore does win the GOP nomination, there has been some speculation Democrats could try to make this a competitive race in the Deep South. And to be sure, Jones's decisive first-round victory over Naval veteran Robert Kennedy Jr. (who is not related to the famous Democratic political family) is an encouraging sign, and does give him a head start into the general election.
But, as University of Alabama political science professor emeritus William Stewart told NPR earlier, "Right now the Democratic Party is very impotent here. I think whomever the Republicans choose as their nominee will be the winner."