Sen. Luther Strange survived Tuesday’s Republican primary for the Alabama Senate seat earlier vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a second-place finish that may affirm the influence of President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Strange, appointed to the seat on an interim basis after Sessions joined Trump’s Cabinet, will now battle the top GOP vote-getter, ousted Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, in a Sept. 26 runoff for the Republican nomination. Both candidates fell well short of the 50-percent-plus-one-vote mark needed to avoid a runoff.
Running third in the primary was Rep. Mo Brooks, a member of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus. Seven other GOP candidates trailed the three front-runners.
The backing from Trump and McConnell may give Strange, Alabama’s former attorney general, the upper hand in a showdown with just one other Republican. And given Alabama’s conservative political tilt, the eventual Republican nominee is almost certain to win in the Dec. 12 general election.
Strange “got the Trump bump,” said Vince Gawronski, professor of political science at Birmingham-Southern College. Without Trump’s support, Strange was unlikely to make it to the runoff, Gawronski said.
Known as “Big Luther” for his 6-foot-9-inch height, Strange was hampered politically by suspicion of impropriety surrounding his February appointment to the Senate by then-Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R). At the time, Strange’s office was investigating Bentley’s alleged attempts to conceal an extramarital affair with a former top aide.
Strange, 64, has denied that he tread softly on Bentley in order to land the seat. Bentley pleaded guilty to two criminal misdemeanor charges related to his affair and resigned from office in April.
Fearing that another maverick like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) would supplant Strange, a reliable vote for Senate leadership, McConnell and then Trump rallied to his cause.
Although Moore and Brooks joined Strange in casting themselves as pro-Trump, the president waded into the intra-party fight and endorsed the incumbent a week before the primary. The president declared on Twitter that Strange had done a “great job.”
It was McConnell’s political machine, though, that did the lion’s share of the work for Strange. The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC tied to McConnell, spent about $4 million supporting Strange ― much of it in the form of advertisements attacking Brooks, 63, and Moore, 70.
Strange’s survival in Tuesday’s vote stanches the bleeding for McConnell during a trying period for his leadership. It comes a few weeks after the collapse of Obamacare repeal in the Senate, which showcased the limits of McConnell’s influence over a Republican conference torn asunder by its moderate and fiscal hard-line wings.
To date, McConnell’s only major accomplishment since the November election is shepherding the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, a conservative federal judge, to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Top Republicans were especially wary of Brooks because he has proved a thorn in the side of House Republican leadership. Brooks was one of the Freedom Caucus members who helped scuttle the first version of the House bill repealing the Affordable Care Act, asserting it did not go far enough in dismantling the 2010 law. He ended up voting for the more conservative bill that passed in May, publicly praising a provision to allow states to opt out of regulations protecting people with pre-existing medical conditions from being denied insurance.
The Senate Leadership Fund made the most of Brooks’ reluctance to endorse Trump in the general election and vocal criticism of the president, before and after the vote. A July television ad cast him as an anti-Trump crusader in step with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), “not Alabama conservatives.”
In another ad targeting Brooks, the super PAC featured Alabama veterans who accused him of voting to “cut off funding to fight ISIS.”
The McConnell-aligned super PAC also focused on Moore. Earlier this month, it released an ad accusing him and his wife of taking over $1 million from a charity they ran. Moore disputed the claim and tried to stop it with legal action.
Moore, a social conservative provocateur, appealed to the devout Christian element of Alabama’s GOP electorate. He was suspended last September from his chief justice post after ordering state judges not to grant same-sex marriage licenses despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s nationwide legalization of such unions.
In 2003, he was ousted as chief justice ― an elected position in Alabama ― after refusing a federal court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument he installed in the state judicial building. He again won election to the job in 2012.
Brooks and Moore responded to the McConnell-backed onslaught by declaring a kind of united front against the Senate leader. They each spoke out against the attacks ads targeting the other.
Brooks took it a step further in late July, dubbing McConnell “head of the swamp” in Washington and calling for his expulsion from the Republican Senate conference.
Moore fought back with an ad hitting McConnell and other Republican senators for failing to repeal Obamacare.
“They lied about repealing Obamacare,” the narrator said in the spot. “Now Mitch McConnell’s D.C. slime machine is spending millions spreading lies about Roy Moore.”
Actor and martial artist Chuck Norris endorsed Moore earlier this month; Brooks’ backers included conservative media personalities Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham.
Along with the air cover from the Senate Leadership Fund, Strange vastly outspent Brooks and Moore in the campaign. Strange had spent nearly $2.3 million compared with Brooks’ $937,000 and Moore’s $286,000 as of the end of July.