One week from today, Alabama Sen. Luther Strange and former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore will face off in a GOP runoff in the race to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the Senate. The race has drawn lots of national attention, as President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have endorsed Strange, while former top White House adviser Steve Bannon is on Moore’s side. Who wins? And what does who wins tell us about the current state of the GOP? I reached out to my friend Brian Lyman, the state government reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser, for answers. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
Cillizza: We’re eight days from the runoff. Who’s ahead – and why?
Lyman: The polls have some wildly different margins, but they generally show that Moore is ahead of Strange. Alabama is a notoriously difficult state to survey, though, so it’s really anyone’s guess at the exact standing of where things are now.
If Moore is ahead, it’s likely because Republican voters know him better than they do Strange, who has an interesting biography but says remarkably little about it (and carries the burdens of an appointment from an unpopular former governor).
If Strange is making it close or pulling ahead, it’s because he and his allies are flooding the airwaves with pledges of support for the President and attacks on Moore and his past.
To state the obvious, it will come down to turnout. If Strange’s ads convince the not-inconsiderable anti-Moore GOP voters in suburban Alabama – particularly the Birmingham area – to cast ballots, the incumbent will be in good shape. But Moore has followers who turn out no matter what. That’s a hard factor for an opponent to overcome, particularly in an off-year.
Cillizza: Donald Trump likes to be associated with winners. If the polling suggests Moore is going to win, then why is Trump coming to Alabama to campaign for Strange this weekend?
Lyman: Strange has tried to make this entire campaign a referendum on the President, who remains popular among Republican voters in Alabama. He has adopted Trump’s phrases, run ads showing him standing by the President to build a wall and called Trump’s election last November a “biblical miracle.” Strange has also attacked other candidates for real or perceived slights to the President. In short, Strange has positioned himself as a loyal soldier for the President, and the President is known to reward loyalty.
Cillizza: Moore has made national headlines a few times in recent weeks. He seemed not to understand DACA. He threw an Economist reporter out of an event. He even suggested that 9/11 might have been punishment for turning away from God. Is this “strategy” working?
Lyman: Moore doesn’t win or lose elections in Alabama because of his mastery of policy, but you’d struggle to find issues Strange is presenting with any degree of nuance.
For instance, I’ve asked both campaigns what their candidates believe should happen to those under the DACA program; as of this writing, neither have answered.
I don’t think we’ll see anything like subtlety on that or any other issue over the next week; it’s just wall-wall-wall on television and in campaign appearances. Moore may or may not understand DACA, but if Strange does, he’s not saying what he thinks should happen to DACA recipients.
Moore has a following in Alabama because right or wrong, his base views him as a uniquely honest candidate. This doesn’t mean Moore lacks critics in Alabama – he has plenty of them, even within his own party. But he wins loyalty because of what made him famous.
The former chief justice is a former chief justice twice over – first, because he refused to obey a federal judge’s order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the building where the Alabama Supreme Court sits, and second, because he told probate judges they had a “ministerial duty” to not issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. [Here’s a good timeline of Moore’s many controversies.]
Many Alabamians found those episodes embarrassing, to put it mildly. But to his followers, Moore was willing to lose his office over matters of principle. They consider that a rare quality in a politician. Many here view state government cynically (and state politicians often give them good reason to do so), so Moore stands out for them in that respect.
Cillizza: This race is being painted as a national fight between McConnell/Trump (Team Strange) and Steve Bannon (Team Moore)? Is that the right dynamic? Or are we overlooking state-specific politics?
Lyman: National politics will play a role, but Alabama politics will likely be the controlling factor.
Moore sits in a unique niche here. It’s hard to find parallels in federal politics or other states for him.
Imagine a candidate ideologically in tune with his party but with an anti-establishment reputation (deserved or not) who automatically commands a third of the vote in a primary before lifting a finger – someone who excites his followers in ways other candidates might only achieve after years of work and acres of money.
On the other side, Strange has won endorsements from business groups and organizations affiliated with the Republican Party, but he carries the burden of his appointment by former Gov. Robert Bentley, which is probably the major reason he’s struggled in the primary and (at least to this point) in the runoff. I know DC politicos will rush to claim credit or pin blame for next Tuesday’s result, but Alabama’s peculiar dynamics will decide the outcome.
CIllizza: Finish this sentence: “_________” will win next Tuesday. Now, explain.
Lyman: “Donald Trump.”
Both Strange and Moore have promised to fight for the President’s agenda, even when that agenda leads to votes that could have an adverse effect on the state. For instance, every (Affordable Care Act) repeal bill contains some measure of cuts to Medicaid, which covers 1 million Alabamians – mostly children, elderly and the disabled – and serves as the cornerstone for health care in the state. Neither Strange nor Moore have shown any hesitation in supporting ACA repeal bills with those cuts. Should one or the other beat Democrat Doug Jones in the general election December 12, Trump will likely have an automatic vote for anything he proposes.