By David Thornton
Moore’s victory came despite heavy support by President Trump and Republican leaders in Washington for incumbent Luther Strange. In fact, some of the Washington endorsements for Strange probably did more to help Roy Moore than their intended recipient.
President Trump’s endorsement of Luther Strange had a limited effect. Polling in late August showed Roy Moore with 51 percent and 32 percent for Strange with 17 percent undecided. Moore won the actual vote 55-45 percent, which seems to indicate that a majority of undecided voters broke for Strange.
Politics makes strange bedfellows. Few have been as strange as the alliance between Donald Trump and Luther Strange, who was singled out as a “swamp creature” by many conservatives. Strange was hobbled from the start by opponents who tied him to two recent corruption scandals in Alabama. Strange was among the many Alabama politicians, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who took money from a company that was later charged with bribing a state legislator in connection with an EPA cleanup. He was also tainted by his appointment to the Senate by Gov. Robert Bentley at the same time that Strange, who was then Alabama’s attorney general, was investigating the governor for corruption in a scandal that eventually led to his impeachment.
In spite of appeals by the president and prominent Republicans, most conservative groups rallied behind Moore, who ran primarily against Mitch McConnell, who had also endorsed Strange. The August poll by JMC Analytics found that 45 percent said that McConnell’s endorsement made them less likely to vote for Strange. Forty-six percent said it made no difference.
The antipathy to the Republican leadership comes at an inopportune time. The Republicans have just suffered an embarrassing defeat on Obamacare thanks to a small number of Republican senators who deserted the party to vote against the Republican reform bill. Roy Moore has strong conservative and Christian credentials, but he will not be a senator who can be counted on to stand with the party on votes for bills like Graham-Cassidy.
Moore has a reputation as a maverick and a rebel. Moore was twice elected to the Alabama Supreme Court and was twice removed. In 2003, a panel ruled that Moore had violated the state ethics code and removed him from the bench after he ignored a federal court order instructing him to remove a Ten Commandments monument. In 2015, Moore was suspended again for ordering state judges to ignore the Supreme Court ruling that made same-sex marriage the law of the land. While Moore has remained true to his principles, his actions have not been effective at advancing his agenda.
President Trump, at this weekend rally for Luther Strange, made two key arguments for Strange. The first was that Strange was a loyal legislator who had been a reliable vote for the Trump agenda. Moore overcame this objection by running as a supporter of the Trump agenda, even if he might be less of a sure vote than Luther Strange. “Don’t let anybody in the press think that because he [Trump] supported my opponent that I do not support him,” Moore said in the New York Times after his victory.
Trump’s second point was that Moore might not be electable in the general election. He may have a point there. The eccentric former judge has a history of controversial remarks and even pulled out a pistol at a campaign rally the day before the election. The possibility of Moore pulling “a Todd Akin” and handing to the election to the Democrats with an outlandish comment is a real possibility.
In the crimson state of Alabama, as the Republican candidate, the race is Moore’s to lose. Whether Moore wins or loses, the Republican problems in the Senate will not be resolved and it will still be difficult to advance the Republican agenda. The real loser is the traditional Republican establishment whose endorsements were rejected by voters even as the candidates fought over who was President Trump’s best ally.