A year ago, the idea that Roy Moore, a former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice, would be elected to the U.S. Senate was absurd. But he took one giant step closer to that reality with a convincing victory over appointed-Sen. Luther Strange in Tuesday’s special election Republican primary runoff.
The recent result wasn’t a surprise, thanks to numerous public polls showing Moore with a commanding lead, but it’s still shocking to see a candidate supported by President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell go down to a significant defeat.
There will be plenty of time to analyze the race in the days and weeks ahead, but here are some of my initial thoughts.
There are some problems money can’t fix. The McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund was the biggest player in the race, spending over $9 million (including $5 million in the runoff) trying to pull Strange across the finish line. It couldn’t overcome the senator’s appointment by scandal-plagued GOP Gov. Robert Bentley. And thanks to new Republican Gov. Kay Ivey, Strange had to run immediately, instead of having over a year to try to distance himself from the situation.
If Strange had not accepted the appointment, he would have won the race. Strange was not only plagued by Bentley and the appointment process, but his incumbency also easily tied him to Washington, the Beltway, and GOP leadership — all of which are unpopular to grass-roots GOP voters, particularly at a time when Republicans on the Hill struggled to deliver on key campaign promises. If Strange had not accepted the appointment and simply run for the seat in the special election as the attorney general of Alabama, he would have avoided that association with D.C. And I think he would have won the seat as a more broadly acceptable Republican alternative to Moore or Rep. Mo Brooks. Being branded as the anointed or establishment candidate continues to be the scarlet letter of GOP politics right now.
The candidate with the most money doesn’t always win. Similar to the first point above, this race is a great example that candidates, campaigns, turnout, and other factors matter, along with spending. Strange and his allies (the Senate Leadership Fund, NRA Political Victory Fund and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) outspent Moore and friends (Senate Conservatives Action, Proven Conservative PAC, and Great America Alliance) $5.75 million to $1.02 million on television and radio in the runoff, yet Moore sprinted to victory.
Steve Bannon’s group was a lot of bark and not a lot of bite. Great America Alliance, the outside group associated with the former White House adviser who is determined to take down the Republican Party, spent $26,000 on television ads in the runoff. That may sound like a lot of money to normal, working Americans, but it’s peanut dust on the campaign trail. Moore should wake up every morning and thank God for the $20 Great America Alliance spent in the Meridian, Mississippi media market that spills into two Alabama counties.
Moore’s team ran a good race. Simultaneously complaining about outside groups trying to buy and influence the race while promoting endorsements from politicians and celebrities from around the country and even across the ocean, all while avoiding major press events that could have been unflattering, was a bold and effective move.
Trump’s popularity is not transferable. The situation is complicated considering he didn’t exert a lot of energy into endorsing Strange. When he went to Huntsville, Alabama, for a rally, Trump admitted that he might have made a mistake. But this race is one clear example that the president’s popularity among Republican voters doesn’t transfer easily to other candidates. President Barack Obama didn’t get as involved in races as Trump appears willing to do, but the 44th president experienced a similar problem when trying to mobilize his operation for someone else when he wasn’t on the ballot. It just didn’t work.
Republican senators don’t need to panic, yet. Of course Moore’s victory could embolden GOP primary challengers across the country. But defeating an unelected senator who has been in office for less than a year is different than defeating an elected incumbent. As much as Bannon enjoys saber rattling, defeating Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker in a primary will be a more difficult task. Sen. Jeff Flake is in serious jeopardy of losing his primary in Arizona, but he chose to publicly poke Trump and is alienating a sizable portion of the GOP electorate that is loyal to the president. Wicker and other GOP senators aren’t in the same category right now.
Moore’s nomination doesn’t jeopardize the seat, yet. With Moore’s reputation, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the seat is primed for a Democratic takeover. But it’s still unclear whether Moore’s greatest sins are enough for a Republican to lose in a state Trump won with 62 percent, whether Democrats will embrace their nominee Doug Jones, and whether the Jones campaign has the infrastructure in place to take advantage of additional focus and money. Democrats would also probably need the GOP establishment to abandon Moore, but that isn’t likely to happen, considering the Senate Leadership Fund’s election night statement expressing support for him. In general, it’s easy to forget that what offends voters and reporters outside of Alabama is part of the reason Moore got this far within Alabama.
Take a deep breath. Multiple groups will conduct special general election polling in the coming days and weeks and there will be real data to prove or disprove the idea that Moore’s nomination puts the seat in play. For now, we’re sticking with our Likely Republican rating.