In Alabama, an early test of anti-establishment mood

The Republican primary contest in Alabama on Tuesday pits a controversial outsider against an incumbent backed by the Washington establishment – including (sort of) President Trump.

Evan Vucci/AP
President Donald Trump hugs US Senate candidate Luther Strange during a campaign rally, in Huntsville, Ala., Sept. 22. Senator Strange and former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore face off Tuesday, Sept. 26, in the Republican runoff for US Senate.

Alabamians don’t take kindly to outsiders interfering in their politics.

“We cannot be bought,” declares B.B. Sellers, as he and his wife leave a sweltering outdoor rally for Roy Moore, the firebrand former judge who has been leading in a tight Republican run-off for US Senate.

The GOP establishment has flooded the state with millions of dollars in advertising in advance of Tuesday’s primary election, trying to boost the chances of incumbent GOP Sen. Luther Strange, who was appointed earlier this year after former Sen. Jeff Sessions stepped down to become US attorney general. But Senator Strange is facing a strong challenge from Judge Moore, the conservative former state chief justice best known for refusing to remove a statue of the Ten Commandments from the Alabama Judicial Building, despite a federal court order.

Moore’s supporters see him as a man of principle – and they bristle at being told by Washington which candidate they ought to support. 

“His law is written in stone,” affirms Sherry Sellers, while her husband emphasizes: “It’s our senator.”

That may be, but this race is shaping up as a national test of establishment Republicans against conservative grassroots rebels.

Supporting Strange is Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, along with the US Chamber of Commerce, and the National Rifle Association.

Tami Chappell/Reuters
Former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin greets US Senate candidate Judge Roy Moore while campaigning at the historic Union Station Train Shed in Montgomery, Ala., on Sept. 21, 2017.

Backing Moore is Breitbart editor and former White House strategist Steve Bannon, along with conservative talk show hosts, and members of the hardline House Freedom Caucus. President Trump, Vice President Pence, and even Alaska’s “Mama Grizzly” Sarah Palin have all flown in to flex their muscles for one side or the other.

The outcome could have implications not only for this seat – but also, to some extent, for the Republican Party writ large. A win by Moore would undoubtedly send a chill down the spine of GOP incumbents in states like Arizona, Nevada, Mississippi, and Tennessee, all of whom are facing potential primary challenges of their own. Heading into the 2018 midterm elections, the last thing GOP leaders in Washington want is to have to defend incumbents in primaries with money that could otherwise be used to defeat Democrats.

“It’s not just about the race here in Alabama. It’s much bigger than that,” says Bill Armistead, Moore’s campaign chairman. Republican incumbents, he says, “are scared to death” that if Moore wins, “there will be a domino effect next year.”  

It will also test, at least to some extent, Mr. Trump’s influence over his own party. Officially, Trump has sided with the establishment in this race, having endorsed the 6-foot-9-inch Strange, whom Trump affectionately calls “Big Luther.” When Trump called him from the White House with his backing last month, Strange said he nearly drove off the road.

But it has not been as full-throated an endorsement as Strange might have wished. At a campaign rally for Strange on Friday night in Huntsville, Trump told the crowd he was “taking a big risk” and mused that he “might have made a mistake.” The president expressed approval for both Strange and for Moore – who is running a “drain the swamp” campaign reminiscent in some ways of Trump’s own.

Outsider appeal

That Moore was thrown off the bench twice – once for his Ten Commandments defiance, and later for refusing to implement the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage – is a badge of honor in the eyes of many of his supporters, who say that he’s the true outsider in the race.

“Both candidates … want to be seen as outsiders. For Luther Strange, that’s a hard sell,” says Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama GOP activist and early Trump supporter.  

Strange is a former lobbyist and former attorney general for Alabama. He was appointed to the Senate by former Gov. Robert Bentley, before the governor resigned to avoid impeachment. Strange had asked state lawmakers to pause their investigation of the governor so his office could look into the case. Many voters viewed the appointment as a quid pro quo, which Strange adamantly denies.

The president’s endorsement of Strange “makes it sort of a confusing race,” says Mr. McCutcheon, who declined to say who he was supporting.

In front of an adoring crowd that packed the Von Braun Center Friday night, Trump praised Strange’s loyalty, saying the senator wanted nothing in return for supporting the president on Obamacare repeal, while others asked for favors. (By contrast, Moore has said he would not vote for the current Graham-Cassidy bill to repeal Obamacare, arguing that it is not a “full” repeal.)

Perhaps most important, Trump added, Strange would have no problem winning against Democrat Doug Jones in the December general election - while Moore, who ran twice for governor and lost badly in the GOP primaries both times, might be vulnerable.

The race has been heated enough that some state Republicans are concerned about whether GOP voters will unite behind the winner in time for the general election. Indeed, interviews at headliner Moore and Strange rallies last week revealed strong emotions.

Moore supporters laud his Christian values and strong independent streak. “He stood for the Ten Commandments very boldly,” says Claire Hubbard, sitting in a folding camp chair next to her husband of 50 years at the old Union Station train shed in Montgomery Thursday.

“He knows and can quote most of the Constitution and the Bible. He’s not going to go with the flow,” she says, as the couple waited in the heat for a televised candidate debate that was sometimes interrupted by freight trains rumbling through. The debate was followed by a rally featuring Moore and former Alaska Gov. Palin, who railed against the “swamp creatures” in Washington.

Support for Trump's agenda

But Moore’s unbending defiance is exactly what worries Republican Pam Segars-Morris, who came to Huntsville in her red “proud to be a deplorable” shirt to hear the president stump for Strange.

Speaking of Moore, she said, “I saw him put his hand on the Bible and defy the court he swore to defend.” She added: “We can’t have a loose cannon with his own agenda.” Strange, she says, is also a Christian and will support the president on his agenda, whether it’s healthcare or immigration. His big problem, she laments, is that “they’ve tried to paint him as the establishment candidate. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

For his part, Strange talks about his friend the president with every breath, and repeatedly points to Trump’s endorsement as evidence of his own outsider, anti-establishment credentials.

Still, despite all the national attention and money being poured into the race, some observers believe its impact may be limited – even if Moore wins.

For one thing, Alabama has always had an unusually strong anti-establishment streak, going heavily for Trump last year. The religious right also plays a large role in politics here. So a Moore win here would not necessarily portend trouble for GOP incumbents such as Sens. Jeff Flake in Arizona or Dean Heller in Nevada. And Strange is not a typical incumbent, having been in the Senate for mere months. He hasn’t had time to build the same kind of network of support as colleagues who are defending seats they’ve already won in previous elections.

“This is a unique race,” says Chris Brown, a GOP consultant in Alabama. “I’m not sure you can find the same kind of dynamic elsewhere.”

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