BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Republican voters here put a bitter Senate campaign into overtime, forcing Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.) into a runoff with conservative jurist Roy Moore for the right to represent Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s old seat.
Strange was endorsed by President Trump, the National Rifle Association and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s super PAC, which spent $2.5 million on TV ads to boost him in Tuesday’s primary. That helped push him past Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), saving national Republicans from an embarrassment in a unique mid-summer election marked by low turnout.
Democrats, who have not won a Senate race in Alabama since 1992, nominated former U.S. attorney Doug Jones over a field of fringe candidates, according to a projection by the Associated Press.
On the Republican side, Moore, with nearly 41 percent of the vote, was in first place with about two-thirds of votes counted. Strange was in second with 32 percent and Brooks was in third with 20 percent.
Strange’s second-place showing despite his incumbent status served as a slim victory for Trump and Senate leaders — but with an asterisk. After a tumultuous day during which Trump seemed to defend white supremacists who participated in a protest in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend that left one woman dead, Strange now faces the challenge of needing to continue to court Trump’s supporters during a six-week runoff even as the national appetite for aligning with the president has diminished.
As Strange arrived at a crowded Republican victory event here, there was little worry — in the hotel ballroom, at least — that the president’s stumbling responses to Charlottesville would become a runoff problem. Conservatives, they said, would continue to back Trump over his critics.
“He said it well — both sides are to blame, and it was a bunch of radicals that set things off,” said George Williams, a member of the RNC’s National African American Advisory Council. “I was in Washington for the inauguration, and you should have seen the destruction they caused. It was out of control.”
For Democrats, the possibility of a race against Moore, who has twice been suspended from the state’s Supreme Court for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument and refusing to recognize same-sex marriages, may attract more Democratic money into the race.
Some Strange supporters hesitated to talk about Trump’s Tuesday comments; they were sure, however, that Democrats were fooling themselves to think they could make the race competitive. “The Democratic Party is dead in Alabama,” Strange supporter Rita Rutledge said confidently.
Brian Ellis, the CEO of the conservative Yellowhammer News site who attended Strange’s party Tuesday, said that Strange’s support from Trump would keep helping him through the election, no matter the president’s stumbles. “This is the most Trump-friendly state there is,” he said. “The Trumpers are fine with what he says, and they’ll keep on being fine with it.”
Strange (R-Ala.) was appointed to replace Sessions in February by a governor who later resigned in disgrace. Despite millions of dollars in ads, and tweets and robo-calls from a supportive President Trump, public polling had Strange in a dogfight with Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) and former state Supreme Court justice Roy Moore. In a Tuesday morning tweet, Trump reiterated that Strange “will be great” if sent back to the Senate.
“I predict that President Trump’s endorsement will be incredibly important because people want his agenda passed,” Strange told Fox News before heading out to vote. “I couldn’t be more honored.”
But in the final hours of campaigning, both Moore and Brooks attacked Strange as a pawn of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), whose Senate Leadership Fund and One Nation super PACs have spent more than $2.4 million to bail out the incumbent. At one of his final stops, at a sporting goods store in his north Alabama congressional district, Brooks lit into Strange as a “dishonest and unethical” candidate who had been captured by the political establishment.
“In this neck of the woods, Luther Strange is getting the living daylights stomped out of him,” Brooks said, as a supporter waved a campaign-provided banner reading DITCH MITCH. “We’re going to beat Luther Strange here two-to-one, or three-to-one, not just because they know me, but because they know that Luther Strange and Mitch McConnell have been lying to the state of the Alabama. And we don’t like people who are dishonest with us.”
Brooks, a flinty member of the House Freedom Caucus who frequently bucks his party leadership, had been the main focus of the SLF’s attacks. The most damaging spots have played back year-old footage of Brooks, then a supporter of Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Tex.) presidential bid, criticizing Trump; evidence, according to the SLF, that Brooks was on the same side as liberal Democrats.
Yet he has maintained a core base of supporters in Alabama.
“He’s the first representative we’ve had in this district that I’m proud of,” said Joe Rybacki, 37, a software engineer from Lacey’s Spring who attended Brooks’s election-night party on Tuesday. “Everybody else will pander to special interest groups they think will get them elected.”
Rybacki already had supported Brooks in his bids for the U.S. House of Representatives. “I was hoping he would run [for Senate], that it wouldn’t just be Bentley’s cronies.”
Commending both his opponents’ campaigns after conceding Tuesday, Brooks called Moore honest and congratulated Strange for fighting “very, very hard.” He also declined to endorse either candidate, instead exhorting voters to “make a principled decision.”
The SLF recently turned its guns on Moore, who gained national attention 20 years ago for fighting to display the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. In 2003, he was suspended from the court for refusing to remove a monument of the commandments; in 2016, after an improbable comeback, he was suspended again for refusing applications for same-sex marriage licenses.
Tellingly, the attack ads against him skirt those controversies to portray Moore as a rip-off artist who added to his six-figure salary by starting a lucrative think tank. At his final campaign stop, speaking to the gun-rights organization ‘Bama Carry at a Chinese buffet restaurant in Birmingham, Moore referred to the attack ads as “forces coming in from the north to buy your vote,” and predicted that his grass roots support would carry the day.
“The organization is better than I’ve ever had before,” said Moore. “Money? Well, that’s always less. I’m being outspent ten-to-one.”
The multiple David-and-Goliath stories have rallied some Alabama conservatives, who blame McConnell for Congress’s languid 2017 pace. In their final TV spots, Brooks displays an Aug. 10 tweet in which Trump blamed McConnell for the failure of the Affordable Care Act repeal push; Moore’s spot says flatly that McConnell’s Republicans “lied about repealing ObamaCare.”
In an interview at one of his final spots, Strange acknowledged that the narrow failure of the “skinny repeal” bill had depressed voters, even though he’d cast his vote with McConnell and the president.
“They’re frustrated, I share their frustration,” he said.
Public polling has suggested that the frustration will leave Strange well short of the 50 percent he needs to avoid a runoff. In five polls, conducted by news stations and Republican groups, Strange has never risen higher than 35 percent. The final poll, conducted by the Republican-friendly Trafalgar Group lasft week, found Moore at 38 percent, Strange at 24 percent, and Brooks at 17 percent. Five other Republicans, led by State Sen. Trip Pittman, came in at single-digit support.
Democrats see a rare opportunity if the Republicans nominate Moore, or if Strange wins but is dogged by scandal. The oddly-timed special election may depress voter turnout, with a general election not coming until Dec. 12.
Jones, the Democrat, is a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted two conspirators in a 1963 bombing of a black church.
Alabama Republicans, who during the Obama years drove Democrats to near-extinction, were operating as if the winner of their primary and runoff would glide toward victory. At his final rallies, Brooks said that voters really had a choice of whether to let “the swamp” choose who went to Washington, or whether to send a conservative disrupter to replace Sessions.
“If it’s a Roy Moore and Mo Brooks runoff, there will be hell to pay in Washington, D.C.,” said Brooks at one rally, as the DITCH MITCH banner waved from the audience.
Mitra Malek in Huntsville, Ala., contributed to this report.