By Hastings Wyman –
The Republican Primary to fill the three-year US Senate vacancy of US Attorney General Jeff Sessions (R) will be held August 15, with a runoff on September 26. The likely winner in the first primary is Roy Moore, one of the three heavyweights in the race. Moore gained fame by being removed twice from Alabama’s Supreme Court for sticking with his religious/ conservative beliefs. But Moore almost surely will lack the majority necessary to avoid a runoff. Says former GOP state chairman Marty Connors, “Moore has a high floor and a low ceiling.” So essentially what Moore gets on August 15 may be about what he will get in the September 26 runoff. That means incumbent US Sen. Luther Strange and challenger US Rep. Mo Brooks are competing for second place and a spot in the runoff with Moore. (In the General Election on December 12, the GOP nominee will be a prohibitive favorite.)
An average of recent polls cited by Alabama columnist Steve Flowers showed Moore in the lead with 30%, Strange second with 28% and Brooks third with 18%.
The candidates are following different strategies, trying to emphasize their strengths.
Moore is a popular figure with the state’s religious conservatives, having made his name by erecting a monument to the Ten Commandments at the state Supreme Court building and later ordering county clerks to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples. He was removed from the Court both times. But he does not have much fundraising ability, so he’s doing retail politics in rural areas, contacting his supporters in person. Moore’s fans are very loyal to him and are expected to turn out in heavy numbers, perhaps higher than opinion polls would indicate.
Strange has money by the barrelful, thanks to strong support from the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Strange’s incumbency has provided him considerable advantages, but it is a two-edge sword. He was appointed by disgraced former Governor Robert Bentley (R) at the time Strange was state attorney general and the overseer of an investigation into Bentley’s behavior. Thus, many folks are uncomfortable with Strange’s ties to Bentley.
Strange, who was elected Alabama’s attorney general in 2012, is spending big on television ads, especially in urban/suburban areas where his brand of establishment conservatism sells well. Connors says Strange “has an infrastructure and financing to his advantage.” He has run statewide three times, winning two races for attorney general and losing a bid for lieutenant governor. Many of the ads for Strange attack Brooks, citing especially his opposition to Trump in last year’s primary, when he called him “a serial adulterer.” Since then, however, Brooks has also tied himself to Trump.
Glen Browder, Emeritus Professor at Jacksonville State University in Alabama and a former congressman, says “They’re all trying to embrace Trump,” who carried the state by nearly 30 points.
Brooks should run strong his 5th District (Huntsville, etc.), as well as in adjacent counties in the Tennessee Valley area. He is a deep-dyed conservative and is a member of the House Freedom Caucus. He does not have Moore’s statewide base of supporters, nor Strange’s money to build a more secular rightwing base. He did get considerable, though tragic, free media recently when he was frequently on television after being on the baseball field when House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) was shot. Brooks has received several endorsements from his fellow members of Congress, though none carry the same weight as Senate Majority Leader McConnell. Browder notes that Brooks performed well in a recent debate, in which Strange did not participate, and that he generally outperforms Strange on the stump. “Strange is trying to hold off Brooks,” says Browder, adding, “If Strange was not the incumbent, Mo Brooks could probably beat him.”
On the money front, Strange reported that he had raised $2.7 million through June 30. The Senate Leadership Fund, with strong ties to McConnell, spent some $2.5 million on a series of ads attacking Brooks for his 2016 attacks on Trump, comparing Brooks to Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. According to one report, the Fund is expected to spend a total of $10 million on Strange’s behalf. In addition, the NRSC is expected to spend about $350,000 to help Strange.
Brooks reported $1.3 million, much of that transferred from his US House campaign account.
Moore raised $306,000 from 2,787 donors, with 91% of the contributions under $100. Moore has made much of the Washington money spent for Strange, referring to Strange in one email as “Mitch McConnell’s hand-picked crony.”
In summary, opines Connors, the first primary vote “is a battle for second place” and “Luther Strange has a slight edge.” Stay tuned.