The Resurrection of Roy Moore – Politico
In his first job in the justice system, Roy Moore’s challenges to the local establishment effectively got him run out of town.
It was the late 1970s, in Etowah County, in the northeastern part of Alabama. Moore, a young prosecutor, took it upon himself to convene a grand jury to look into whether the sheriff’s department was underfunded, and a local judge filed a complaint with the state bar. Moore then ran and lost an election against the judge, provoking another bar complaint. Both challenges to Moore’s license to practice law were dismissed, but by 1982 he knew it was time to leave.
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Moore’s response? For two years, he undertook his own version of a walkabout. Moore, who learned to box in the late 1960s before graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, moved to Texas and trained as a martial-arts fighter. He returned to Gadsden, Etowah’s county seat, only briefly for a karate tournament, and felt at least some measure of vindication after beating out a better-qualified opponent. He then drifted to Australia, where he wrangled for a rancher who shared Moore’s love for poetry. After all this, Moore was still a pariah by the time he returned to Gadsden and went into private practice. He lost a race for district attorney in 1986. His legal career seemed washed up.
Then, in 1992, Alabama politics saw a tidal shift when a Republican was elected governor for the first time since Reconstruction. Moore, who had switched parties from Democrat to Republican, launched what would become one in a long line of political comebacks, earning an appointment to the circuit trial court based in Etowah County. In his autobiography, So Help Me God, the devout born-again Baptist called his ascension to the bench a divine gift.
That period about sums up Moore’s long career in Alabama: He throws jabs at the system; then, when the system counterpunches, he somehow springs back up—stronger.
Now, decades later, a man who has twice been removed as Alabama’s chief justice for defying federal judges and twice lost the governor’s race in the state—a man who has questioned former President Barack Obama’s citizenship, said “homosexual conduct” should be illegal and suggested the 9/11 attacks were an act of punishment by God—is on the precipice of becoming Alabama’s next U.S. senator.
Moore’s long history of political pugilism might in fact help explain why he is the odds-on favorite to win the upcoming special election to fill the former Senate seat of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Moore’s Republican primary opponent, Luther Strange—the former state attorney general appointed temporarily to Sessions’ post in February—has the backing of President Donald Trump and Senate leadership. But Moore’s continued defiance of the political establishment that Strange represents—along with his forthright fundamentalism in an increasingly secular, multicultural world—appeals to a substantial number of Alabama voters: Most polls put Moore comfortably ahead in the September 26 primary runoff. (The winner will square off December 12 against Doug Jones, a Democrat, but no Democrat has won statewide office in Alabama since 2008.)
Odd as it might seem to many outside and even inside Alabama, Mr. Moore may go to Washington precisely because of his long history of putting his evangelical principles above legal oaths and defying federal authority.
Moore, an Alabama native and a Vietnam veteran, has been motivated for his whole career by primarily by one belief: that his evangelical interpretation of Christianity should govern society. He eloquently and effortlessly mixes Bible verses and quotes from the Founding Fathers at campaign stops and other appearances. God and the Bible alone are the moral foundation for law and government in America, he often says, and removing God from the equation yields only bad results. Moore, who met his wife 33 years ago while reciting poetry during a Bible study, summed up these views in a poem he wrote in 2007, which begins: “America the Beautiful, or so you used to be/Land of the Pilgrims’ pride, I’m glad they’re not here to see/Babies piled in dumpsters, abortion on demand/Oh, sweet land of liberty, your house is on the sand.”
Moore quickly took up his cause once he was comfortably installed on the bench in Gadsden in 1992 as a newly appointed trial-court judge. There, he opened court sessions with a prayer and hung two wooden tablets on which the amateur carpenter had written the Ten Commandments with a wood-burning tool. Soon enough, the American Civil Liberties Union sued, and the state responded with a countersuit backing Moore. The litigation went nowhere, and Moore kept the plaque in his Gadsden courtroom. The dust-up lifted Moore out of obscurity: Publicity and resulting speaking engagements at churches and community centers endeared him to the religious right, then a growing political force in Alabama.
After he was elected Alabama’s chief justice in 2000, Moore went even bigger: He famously commissioned a 2½-ton granite monument of the Ten Commandments and had it hauled surreptitiously overnight into the rotunda of the state judicial building in Montgomery before unveiling it in a morning news conference. A federal judge ordered Moore to remove the monument, but he refused, so a state judicial panel booted him from office only three years into a six-year term. Instead of slinking away, however, Moore took his 5,300 pounds of granite on a national tour. “Separation of church and state does not mean separation of God and government,” Moore thundered while addressing the Southern Baptist Convention’s pastor conference in 2005. “We’ve been deceived by a government that tells us we cannot worship God, contradictory to history, contradictory to law and contradictory to logic. … It’s time for Christians to take a stand.”
Moore capitalized on that political setback in the moment, but it also started a losing streak for him. He ran for governor in 2006 and 2010, only to be knocked out in the Republican primaries by more mainstream candidates who would go on to win the general elections, Bob Riley and Robert Bentley. But then Moore made another comeback, one that would be considered improbable for a lesser fighter: In 2012, he was again elected chief justice, with more than 1 million votes. Democrats managed to recruit a credible opponent only at the eleventh hour, and he came up 74,000 votes short in the general election against Moore.
Restored to power, Moore used his bully pulpit to pick a fight with the U.S. Supreme Court. He strongly opposes homosexuality; he called it an “inherent evil” in at least one court opinion he wrote as Alabama chief justice. “Homosexual conduct is, and has been, considered abhorrent, immoral, detestable, a crime against nature, and a violation of the laws of nature and of nature’s God upon which this Nation and our laws are predicated,” he added in his concurrence to a unanimous 2002 Alabama Supreme Court decision denying a lesbian’s request to regain custody of her three children. In Moore’s view, federal legal decisions permitting same-sex marriage amount to overreach into state matters. He resisted when a U.S. District judge in Alabama ruled in early 2015 that a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. And when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage later that year, in Obergefell v. Hodges, Moore directed state judges to ignore the ruling. The Alabama Court of the Judiciary suspended him in September 2016 for the remainder of his term.
But that served only to solidify Moore’s reputation: Among likely candidates for Alabama governor in 2018, polls this year indicated he was the front-runner. Moore’s extreme views turn off many voters, including some Alabama Republicans—he is a gadfly to the chamber of commerce wing of the state GOP. But he can depend on support from at least one-third of Alabama Republicans, according to Larry Powell, a professor of communication studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, a political consultant and the author of several books about politics. Moore’s basic message still reflects the core values of most in Alabama, especially in rural counties where he polls best.
Some 86 percent of Alabama residents identify as Christian, and more than three-fourths say religion plays a very important role in their lives, according to 2014 polling for the Pew Research Center. Half of Alabama residents say they are evangelicals; a similar percentage believe the Bible should be taken literally. Support in Alabama for same-sex marriage is the lowest in the country, a mere 32 percent, according to a 2015 survey, and nearly 60 percent of Alabamans say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.
Moore’s core supporters “admire his dedication to causes they support,” says political scientist William Stewart, a professor emeritus at the University of Alabama who has written extensively about Alabama politics. “They are not offended by the fact that he defied federal court orders.”
Lucky for him, the current political atmosphere in Alabama favors a well-known anti-establishment candidate like Moore (who fittingly rides to his polling place on a horse named Sassy).
There’s no doubt that President Trump is popular in Alabama. He won the state by 28 percentage points. So, it might seem surprising that Moore is leading Strange, whom Trump endorsed; this week the president ramped up his support for “Big Luther” with several tweets, and campaigned for Strange at a rally in Huntsville on Friday. But many Alabamans don’t see a contradiction in liking Trump but rejecting Strange. Moore’s core supporters, especially, see Strange, a former D.C. lobbyist, as a creature of the very swamp they elected Trump to drain.
Stewart, the University of Alabama political scientist, adds that the millions of dollars of anti-Moore attack ads airing across the state—and paid for by the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC linked to the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—are unlikely to sway voters. “People in Alabama are determined to make our own decision about who we are going to elect to the Senate,” he says. (For that matter, most people in Alabama made up their mind about Moore—for good or ill—long before Sarah Palin, Steve Bannon and Breitbart began pushing his candidacy for Senate.)
The only real mystery about Tuesday’s runoff is how many state Republicans normally disinclined to vote for Moore will cast a ballot for him anyway because they are even more put off by his opponent. It’s not just Strange’s ties to the Washington establishment that turn off some Alabama voters. The circumstances behind his February appointment to the Senate, by Alabama’s “Luv Guv,” also taint the candidate, even among some moderate Republicans.
In 2016, Alabama’s then-governor, Robert Bentley, was the subject of both a state criminal ethics investigation and an impeachment probe related to his affair with a married top aide, who met Bentley, a deacon and grandfather, in the Sunday school class he teaches. The affair ended Bentley’s 50-year marriage and exiled him from his hometown Baptist church. But days before the presidential election, then-attorney general Strange asked state legislators to delay impeachment efforts, citing his office’s “related work.” After Trump’s election made Jeff Sessions an administration shoo-in, Strange started playing coy about whether his office actually was targeting Bentley. At the same time, Strange—along with Moore and others—interviewed with the embattled governor for the soon-to-be-vacated Senate seat. Two months after appointing Strange, Bentley resigned amid revived impeachment efforts, pleading guilty to misdemeanor state campaign finance charges.
“A lot of Republicans in Alabama just don’t like Luther Strange,” says Powell, the Birmingham professor. “The animosity goes to his appointment and him dragging his feet on the investigation.”
Moore is no hapless crusader. He is a shrewd politician who has spent nearly two decades building a grass-roots coalition, not only among Alabama voters but nationwide. Along the way, he has improved his skill for picking the right race at the right time. For instance, he reprised his run for chief justice in a presidential election year, 2012, when Republican hopeful Rick Santorum energized the evangelical vote and won Alabama’s presidential primary. Moore actually garnered more votes than Santorum in that day’s chief justice primary. Now, he seems to have made the right calculation again. Moore was mulling a third bid for Alabama governor in 2018, but he jumped into the Senate race after its special election, originally set to coincide with statewide balloting in 2018, was reset for 2017.
If his calculus works again this time, Moore may have achieved the ultimate comeback and the ultimate insult to the establishment—by earning himself the chance to bring his fundamentalist views to the ultimate seat of political power: Washington. “If they don’t want that in Washington,” Moore recently told the Los Angeles Times, “then they better not get me up there.”