What was supposed to be a quiet election to determine who takes Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ place in the U.S. Senate has morphed into something that other parts of the country would find hard to imagine:
A Republican contest to prove who loves President Donald Trump best.
And secondarily, who most hates Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
In the final days of what’s likely to be only a first round of Republican voting, the lines of loyalty are tangled and confused, as is often the case in Alabama politics.
Oddly enough, though Trump carried this state by 62 percent last November, the man with the fewest direct connections to Trump is likely to come out on top on Tuesday: Former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore.
If local polls are on target, Moore is expected to post ahead of two sitting members of Congress – never mind seven other lesser known Republican candidates.
“Drain the Swamp” is the banner stretched across the campaign bus of one of the pair, U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks of north Alabama. But its target isn’t the “Deep State” in Washington. It’s the Senate Republican leadership.
Brooks carries endorsements from Trump acolytes such as Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter. Brooks even has the backing of state Rep. Ed Henry, who chaired Trump’s Alabama campaign. But he is also a member of the House Freedom Caucus, and McConnell doesn’t want another hard-right senator in his chamber.
Brooks has found himself savaged by a well-funded opponent, accused of being an ally House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and worse, a “Never Trump” candidate.
Those accusations have come on behalf of the well-funded Luther Strange, the former state attorney general who has been an incumbent senator from Alabama since February. Strange has run a high-altitude campaign, avoiding appearances with his two rivals.
“I wish he had showed,” groused a noticeably annoyed Brooks at a forum here last week, while Strange was in Washington. “Because I want to confront him head-to-head on the deceit, on the deception, and the false advertising he’s been putting out.”
Strange was appointed to Session’s junior Senate seat by Gov. Robert Bentley, who would resign two months later when faced with impeachment over ethical violations connected with an alleged affair.
Many Alabamans suspect collusion.
Even so, Strange has at least $2.4 million in financial backing from two political action committees, including one controlled by McConnell himself. And he has the backing of the White House. “He has my complete and total endorsement!” Trump has said – via Twitter.
“No question but that the swamp in Washington is fighting back and trying to dictate to Alabama voters who they can consider during the Senate race,” Brooks said when the cash started flowing to Strange. “The [National Republican Senatorial Committee] is part of the swamp.”
Yet Strange has found these advantages undercut in the last week of the campaign, as Trump picked a Twitter feud with the majority leader over the failure by Senate Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The president has even hinted that McConnell ought to be sacked as the leader of the Senate.
“[McConnell] had a couple of votes that turned on him and that should have been very easy to handle,” Trump said Friday. “Whether it’s through the fact you take away a committee chairmanship, do whatever you have to do.”
But remember, this is Alabama.
And Roy Moore, a twice-ousted member of the Alabama Supreme Court, has a potent evangelical following that long pre-dates Trump.
After the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision to strike down bans on same-sex marriage, Moore gained national attention when he urged Alabamian probate judges to defy the ruling. He was suspended from the state’s high court last year.
“Civil liberties for sexual preference? No,” Moore said in May, a day after his Senate campaign. “That’s not a liberty, that’s a licentiousness. You know the difference?”
Like Strange, Moore seldom shows up at large campaign events, instead preferring to play to small, intimate crowds of his evangelical supporters. But he showed up at the Wetumpka forum.
“[The US Supreme Court] could have easily said [marriage] was between one man and five women or one woman and five men,” Moore said. “And that’s what’s coming. That’s what’s coming. They’ll say it’s between a man and his daughter or a woman and her son.”
Remarks like this have driven some Alabama Republicans up a wall. But given the circumstances of Strange’s appointment to the Senate, and the fact that Brooks has trailed in recent surveys, many are anticipating a runoff between “never Moore” and “never Strange” camps.
Many Brooks supporters say they’ll go to Moore. They include Ed Henry, who chaired the Trump campaign in Alabama last year.
State Senate President pro tem Del Marsh, who briefly considered this U.S. Senate race, says he, too, will back Moore if it comes down to a fight between the judge and Strange.
“I’m not going to be able to support Luther,” Marsh said in a phone interview. “So if it’s down to Luther and any other candidate I’m going to support that other candidate, whoever that may be.”
How Strange came to his appointment to the U.S. Senate is behind the hesitancy. At the time, Governor Bentley was in the midst of an alleged sex scandal. As attorney general, Strange was investigating Bentley for using state resources to cover up the scandal.
Nothing ever came of Strange’s inquiry, and an Alabama legislative probe remained on hold until Strange was out of the picture. Faced with impeachment, Bentley subsequently resigned and pled guilty to two misdemeanor counts of campaign finance violations.
“It has mostly become a secondary issue whether or not there was actual corruption involved in the appointment of Senator Strange,” said Angi Stalnaker, a prominent Republican campaign consultant. “The problem his campaign now faces is that the whole thing just looks bad.”
Worse, this special election that will test Strange wasn’t called by Bentley, who would have allowed Strange until 2018 to protect his seat. It was called by the woman who replaced him, Gov. Kay Ivey.
Strange has worked to change the narrative. He’s built up his pro-Trump credentials. He’s focused on his support for Trump nominee Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court.
His campaign manager argues that voters are no longer focusing on what he thinks is “very, very inside baseball,” Michael “Joff” Joffrion said.
Even if Strange makes it into the runoff, he won’t be able to put his troubles behind him.
On Wednesday, the day after the election, the Alabama Ethics Commission will have a hearing on allegations that challenge portions of Strange’s campaign spending.
And late last week, a Tuscaloosa developer, who has formed a political action committee devoted to defeating Strange, filed a fresh ethics complaint, charging that Strange violated state’s ethics law by accepting the U.S. Senate appointment from Bentley. No hearing date has been set yet.
A Republican runoff would be held Sept. 26. The GOP nominee would face the winner of the Democratic primary on Dec. 12. The top two candidates in that race are former U.S. attorney Doug Jones and Robert Kennedy Jr., who is no relationship to the Massachusetts dynasty, but nonetheless is polling in first place.
Former Vice President Joe Biden has endorsed Jones.
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