Sen. Luther Strange (R) is the incumbent in the special election race for the Alabama Senate seat left open by Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsMcCabe, Rosenstein spar over Russia probe Rosenstein takes fire from Republicans in heated testimony Rosenstein defends Mueller appointment, role on surveillance warrants MORE, but the appointed senator isn’t facing an easy path to winning the right to finish out Sessions’s term.
Strange, who was appointed to fill Sessions’s seat in February, is locked in a three-way race with former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore and Rep. Mo BrooksMorris (Mo) Jackson BrooksOvernight Defense: Senate confirms US military’s first African American service chief | Navy to ban display of Confederate flags | GOP lawmakers urge Trump not to cut troops in Germany Republicans urge Trump to reject slashing US troop presence in Germany Conservative lawmakers press Trump to suspend guest worker programs for a year MORE (R-Ala.) — two candidates who threaten to outflank Strange from the right in the deep-red state.
Most of the column-inches and national headlines on the Aug. 15 race have been devoted to the fight between Strange and Brooks, but most polls show Moore solidly on top in the GOP primary field.
Moore is riding high with the conservative faithful after playing a starring role in two heated religious liberty battles, but his polarizing record has turned off others. Strange, on the other hand, has the power of incumbency on his side but faces questions about the circumstances of his appointment to the Senate.
Brooks’s uncompromising conservative record in Congress could boost his Senate bid, but he’s also been attacked for previous criticism of President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE.
“It’s a race between Strange and Brooks to get into the runoff,” said Steve Flowers, a longtime Alabama political columnist and commentator. “I think Moore has got his spot reserved.”
Most public and private polling shows Moore leading the field, with Strange in second place and Brooks in third. If no candidate reaches 50 percent in the nine-candidate GOP primary, the top two finishers will advance to a runoff on Sept. 26.
Brooks told The Hill last month that his internal polling from late June of 500 likely GOP voters had Moore leading with 31 percent, Strange at 23 percent, and Brooks himself at 21. The lack of substantial public polling has made it hard to judge who’s ahead in the race, complicating the typically unpredictable nature of special elections.
Moore said in an interview with The Hill that his campaign’s polling shows him about 8 to 10 points ahead of his nearest rival. While Moore said he doesn’t know his exact standing now, the numbers have been “pretty consistent.”
“I do have a strong grassroots movement built over many years,” Moore told The Hill. “People know me. They know what I stand for, and they’ve come out in droves in this campaign more than any campaign I’ve had.
“But it’s in God’s hands and we leave it there. So if we win or lose, he’ll get the credit.”
Moore has held a steady lead since he entered the race, boosted by his popularity in ultraconservative and religious circles. He’s made his name as a fierce defender of religion who has been regularly embroiled in controversy during his times on the bench.
Moore was first removed from the Alabama Supreme Court in 2003 when he disobeyed a federal judge’s order to take down a Ten Commandments monument Moore had commissioned for the building that housed the state Supreme Court.
Moore rejoined the bench after winning another election in 2012, but was suspended during the last year of his term after telling probate judges to keep enforcing Alabama’s ban on same-sex marriage, despite the landmark federal Supreme Court decision legalizing it nationwide. Moore left the court to mount his Senate bid.
Flowers said the controversies have only improved Moore’s stock with Alabama’s religious conservatives.
“He’s an anomaly. He’s kind of like a Trump,” said an Alabama GOP strategist who is neutral in the race. “No one can come in and be Roy Moore because it takes 25 years of doing what he does to get there.”
Republicans agree that after the slew of controversies, Moore has a high floor and a low ceiling of support. At this point, most Alabamans either love him or hate him.
“He definitely has a set number of voters, which can be diluted or made more powerful based on turnout,” the strategist said.
Because of Moore’s strong pocket of supporters, most political observers in the state say that Strange and Brooks are vying for that likely second runoff spot, with the eventual goal of defeating Moore in a runoff.
Strange and his allies in Washington are mostly training their fire on Brooks, pointing to his past criticism of President Trump during the Republican presidential primary as their top campaign issue. Brooks, who backed Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote The Hill’s Morning Report – Trump’s public standing sags after Floyd protests GOP senators introduce resolution opposing calls to defund the police MORE (Texas) in the GOP primary, called Trump a “serial adulterer” during the campaign.
But Brooks has brushed aside that previous criticism, pointing to the fact that he donated to Trump’s campaign in the general election and encouraged voters to back the GOP presidential ticket.
The Senate Leadership Fund, the de facto outside arm of Senate GOP leadership, has backed Strange with a $2.5 million ad campaign that compares Brooks’s attacks on Trump to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Joint Chiefs chairman says he regrets participating in Trump photo-op | GOP senators back Joint Chiefs chairman who voiced regret over Trump photo-op | Senate panel approves 0B defense policy bill Trump on collision course with Congress over bases with Confederate names MORE (D-Mass.).
The Republican National Committee has also given approval for the Senate GOP’s campaign arm, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, to spend $350,000 to help boost Strange.
While Strange’s allies paint Brooks as a Trump-basher, Strange has been eager to praise the president in a state that Trump won by nearly 30 percentage points.
Strange, who didn’t back a candidate in the 2016 GOP presidential primary while he served as the state’s attorney general, told a Republican audience last week that Trump’s election qualifies as a “biblical miracle.”
So far, Brooks and his allies have framed the attacks as an unwanted Beltway intrusion into Alabama politics. Brooks blasted the Senate Leadership Fund in May as “swamp critters,” taking a cue from Trump’s campaign pledge to “drain the swamp.”
With Moore likely to get into the runoff, a Strange ally said that the accelerating attacks on Brooks is to “prevent him from catching fire” and taking the runoff spot they think Strange could use for an easy second-round win against Moore.
Moore may have the name recognition in the race, but he lags behind in fundraising. Moore told The Hill he raised about $305,000 for his Senate bid, his first quarter as a candidate.
But Strange’s coffers have been boosted by virtue of being the incumbent, while Brooks’s time in the House has elevated his. Strange raised $1.85 million in the second quarter, leaving him with $1.3 million in his campaign account. And while Brooks raised about $300,000 in the same quarter, he has almost $1.4 million in his campaign account.
He argued that Washington isn’t “going to buy this election from the people of Alabama.”
Strange and Brooks also benefit from their congressional positions, which make media appearances that could reach Alabama voters easier to come by.
Moore has a substantial lead in the polls, but his victory is far from assured. That’s in part because of the unpredictable nature of special election primaries, which regularly feature unpredictable turnout. It’s also unclear what narrative will ultimately catch on with Alabama voters.
Critics of Strange have tried to tar the senator as a creature of Washington special interests, and they’ve raised questions about why he was picked to fill the seat until the special election.
Strange was appointed by ex-Gov. Robert Bentley (R) in February. A few months later, Bentley resigned and pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of misusing campaign funds, which grew from an alleged affair with an aide.
Some critics have charged that the decision by national Republicans to treat Strange as the incumbent deprives Alabama voters of the chance to decide who will hold the seat. And others have questioned the optics of a toxic governor shipping his state attorney general out of town during an investigation.
Brooks’s frequent media appearances come with a downside. Earlier this year, Brooks suggested that the GOP’s healthcare reform plan wouldn’t hurt people who “have done things the right way” and said criticism of Sessions was part of a Democratic “war on whites.”
Allies for both Strange and Brooks argued that a Moore primary win could narrowly open the door for Democrats in a general election, even in a red state. When Moore ran for state Supreme Court chief justice in 2012, he beat his Democratic opponent by just 4 points.
“Democrats are outperforming their historic norms in these past five special elections,” a Brooks ally noted, citing House special elections that saw Democrats close the gap on Republicans in traditionally GOP seats.
“So if Moore only won by 4 points back in 2012 and Democrats are voting like their pants are on fire because they hate Donald Trump, you could have a Democratic senator from Alabama.”
With less than a month before the primary, the race could come down to which attack gains traction.
“It’s a really odd race where the traditional dynamics don’t seem to apply,” the Alabama GOP strategist said.
“It’s all up in the air, and that’s the nature of a special election.”
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