Politics

Moore, Strange Advance to Runoff in Alabama Senate Primary

Pair will face off on Sept. 26 for Republican nomination

Alabama Republican Roy Moore, center, was the top finisher in the special election GOP Senate primary on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Judge Roy Moore and Sen. Luther Strange will advance to a Republican primary runoff in the Alabama special election Senate race for the remaining term of former Sen. Jeff Sessions’ seat.

With 98 percent of precincts reporting, Moore led Strange 39 percent to 33 percent, The Associated Press reported. Since neither candidate garnered more than 50 percent of the vote, Moore and Strange, as the top two finishers in the nine-person field, will face off in a Sept. 26 runoff. 

The winner will face the Democratic candidate, former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones. He won the primary outright Tuesday night, leading a seven-candidate field with 66 percent of the vote with 98 percent of precincts reporting. 

GOP Rep. Mo Brooks was in third place in the Republican primary with 20 percent, the AP reported.

Whoever wins the GOP primary runoff will be in a strong position heading into the Dec. 12 general election. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the Alabama Senate race Solid Republican

High name ID

Moore, the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, entered the race with high name recognition throughout the state. He was twice removed from the bench over religious freedom issues, including his refusal to remove a statue of the Ten Commandments from the courthouse and his directive to state probate judges to refuse to administer same-sex marriage licenses.

The former judge faces questions heading into the runoff about whether he has reached a ceiling of support, and whether Brooks voters will swing to him now.  

Moore has become the latest target of the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The group has spent $4 million on the race so far, and has budgeted an additional $4 million for the runoff. 

The PAC was all in for Strange, and Moore and Brooks sharply criticized the outside money pouring in. They both used the group’s involvement to portray Strange as a tool of the GOP establishment.

The president’s pick

But Strange, who was appointed to the seat in February after Sessions resigned to become attorney general, said he is willing to act independently of party leadership. He’s said he would be the strongest ally for President Donald Trump and got some help making that argument when Trump endorsed him one week before the primary. 

Trump reiterated his support with tweets Tuesday encouraging Alabama voters to support the appointed incumbent. The president’s support will likely be key as Strange shifts his focus to the runoff. Trump is popular in the Yellowhammer State and won the GOP presidential primary there last year.

But Strange’s second place could signal that his opponents were successful in tying him to the GOP establishment, especially McConnell. He also faced questions about the circumstances surrounding his appointment to the Senate.

As Alabama’s attorney general last year, Strange reportedly asked a state House committee to stop its probe of Republican Gov. Robert Bentley, while Strange’s own office investigated him. The governor eventually appointed Strange to the vacant Senate seat. Bentley later resigned when he was charged with misusing campaign and government funds to cover up an affair. 

Brooks was more overt on the campaign trail in acknowledging the questions about Strange’s appointment. Moore pointed out in an interview earlier this month that he did not bring up the issue since he did not attack his opponents. But faced with attacks from groups backing Strange, Moore could change his mind.

Brooks was also more forceful about tying Strange to McConnell, adopting the “Ditch Mitch” slogan in the final days before the election. But it was not enough to land a spot in the runoff.

The congressman previously said he would seek re-election to his 5th District House seat if he lost the Senate race. He is already facing a primary challenge from Army veteran Clayton Hinchman.

Democrats’ drought

Democrats haven’t won a Senate race in Alabama since 1992 when Sen. Richard C. Shelby won a second term. He switched to the GOP two years later.

But Jones could benefit from name recognition in the state. He gained prominence as the former U.S. attorney who helped convict two of the remaining perpetrators of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

Jones also nabbed endorsements from prominent Democrats including former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and civil rights icon Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis. The only Democrat in Alabama’s congressional delegation, Rep. Terri A. Sewell, also endorsed Jones.

Heading into the Tuesday election, Democrats were facing the possibility of a runoff of their own.

Navy veteran Robert Kennedy, Jr., the so-called mystery candidate, had done well in recent polling. He acknowledged in an interview with the Montgomery Adviser last week that his recognizable last name helped boost his support, though the businessman is not related to the famed political family.

On Tuesday, Kennedy finished in second place with 18 percent of the vote.

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