By David Weigel,
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Republican voters here put a bitter Senate campaign into overtime Tuesday, forcing Sen. Luther Strange into a runoff with conservative jurist Roy Moore for the right to fill Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s old seat.
Strange was endorsed by President Trump, the National Rifle Association and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s super PAC, which spent $2.5 million on TV ads to boost him in Tuesday’s primary. That helped push him past Rep. Mo Brooks, saving national Republicans from embarrassment in a unique midsummer election marked by low turnout.
Democrats, who have not won a Senate race in Alabama since 1992, nominated former U.S. attorney Doug Jones over a field of fringe candidates.
On the Republican side, Moore, with nearly 40 percent of the vote, was in first place with more than 90 percent of votes counted. Strange — who was appointed in February to temporarily fill the seat — was second with 32 percent, and Brooks was third with 20 percent.
Strange’s second-place showing despite his incumbent status served as a slim victory for Trump and Senate leaders, but with an asterisk. After a tumultuous day when Trump seemed to defend white supremacists who participated in a rally in Charlottesville over the weekend that left one woman dead, Strange now faces the challenge of needing to continue to court Trump’s supporters during a six-week runoff campaign even as the national appetite for aligning with the president has diminished.
As Strange arrived at a crowded Republican victory event here, there was little worry — in the hotel ballroom, at least — that the president’s stumbling responses to Charlottesville would be a problem in the runoff. Conservatives, they said, would continue to back Trump over his critics.
“He said it well — both sides are to blame, and it was a bunch of radicals that set things off,” said George Williams, a member of the Republican National Committee’s National African American Advisory Council. “I was in Washington for the inauguration, and you should have seen the destruction they caused. It was out of control.”
“Let me thank the president of the United States, Donald Trump,” Strange said at his victory party. “He loves the people of Alabama. He knows that I’m the person in this race who’s going to help make this country great again.”
Strange said the runoff will center on one issue: “Who’s best suited to stand for the future of this country with our president?”
For Democrats, the possibility of a race against Moore, who has twice been suspended from the state Supreme Court for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument or to recognize same-sex marriages, may attract more Democratic money.
Some Strange supporters hesitated to talk about Trump’s Tuesday comments; they were sure, however, that Democrats were fooling themselves in thinking they could make the race competitive. “The Democratic Party is dead in Alabama,” Strange supporter Rita Rutledge said confidently.
Brian Ellis, chief executive of the conservative Yellowhammer News site, who attended Strange’s party Tuesday, said Strange’s support from Trump would continue to help him through the election, no matter the president’s stumbles. “This is the most Trump-friendly state there is,” he said. “The Trumpers are fine with what he says, and they’ll keep on being fine with it.”
Strange was appointed to replace Sessions in February by a governor who later resigned in disgrace. Despite millions of dollars in ads, and tweets and robo-calls from a supportive Trump, public polling had Strange in a dogfight with Brooks and Moore. In a Tuesday morning tweet, Trump reiterated that Strange “will be great” if sent back to the Senate.
“I predict that President Trump’s endorsement will be incredibly important because people want his agenda passed,” Strange told Fox News before heading out to vote. “I couldn’t be more honored.”
But in the final hours of campaigning, Moore and Brooks attacked Strange as a pawn of McConnell (R-Ky.), whose Senate Leadership Fund and One Nation super PACs spent more than $2.4 million to bail out the incumbent. At one of his final stops, at a sporting-goods store in his north Alabama congressional district, Brooks lit into Strange as a “dishonest and unethical” candidate who had been captured by the political establishment.
[Past coverage: Alabama governor taps state AG Luther Strange to fill Senate seat vacated by Sessions]
“In this neck of the woods, Luther Strange is getting the living daylights stomped out of him,” Brooks said, as a supporter waved a campaign-provided banner reading “DITCH MITCH.” “We’re going to beat Luther Strange here 2 to 1, or 3 to 1, not just because they know me, but because they know that Luther Strange and Mitch McConnell have been lying to the state of the Alabama. And we don’t like people who are dishonest with us.”
Brooks, a flinty member of the House Freedom Caucus who frequently bucks his party leadership, had been the main focus of the Senate Leadership Fund’s attacks. The most damaging spots featured year-old footage of Brooks, then a supporter of the presidential campaign of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), criticizing Trump; evidence, according to the PAC, that Brooks was on the same side as liberal Democrats.
Yet he maintained a core base of supporters in Alabama.
“He’s the first representative we’ve had in this district that I’m proud of,” said Joe Rybacki, 37, a software engineer from Lacey’s Spring who attended Brooks’s election night party Tuesday. “Everybody else will pander to special interest groups they think will get them elected.”
In Huntsville, Brooks told supporters that he would run for reelection to his House seat and pointedly refused to endorse either of the victors. “I’m going to withhold my judgement at this point in time,” he said. “I hope you will make a principled decision.”
The Senate Leadership Fund also recently turned its guns on Moore, who gained national attention 20 years ago for fighting to display the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. In 2003, he was suspended from the state Supreme Court for refusing to remove a monument of the commandments; in 2016, after an improbable comeback, he was suspended again for refusing applications for same-sex marriage licenses.
[Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore suspended for defiance over same-sex marriage]
Tellingly, the attack ads against him skirted those controversies to portray Moore as a rip-off artist who added to his six-figure salary by starting a lucrative think tank. At his final campaign stop, speaking to the gun rights organization BamaCarry at a Chinese restaurant in Birmingham, Moore referred to the attack ads as “forces coming in from the North to buy your vote” and predicted that his-grass roots support would carry the day.
“The organization is better than I’ve ever had before,” he said. “Money? Well, that’s always less. I’m being outspent 10 to 1.”
On election night, Moore told his supporters: “This is a great victory. The attempt by the silk-stocking Washington elitists to control the vote of the people of Alabama has failed.”
He went on to praise his fellow Republican candidates who fell short in what he called a fight against “the Washington crowd led by Mitch McConnell who attempted to buy the vote of the people of Alabama.”
“We’ve worked this campaign with about a 16th of the money they’ve gotten out of Washington,” Moore said, before giving thanks to the Almighty: “God’s hand is still on this country, and this campaign.”
The multiple David-and-Goliath stories rallied some Alabama conservatives, who blame McConnell for Congress’s languid pace this year. In final TV spots, Brooks displayed an Aug. 10 tweet in which Trump blamed McConnell for the failure of the Affordable Care Act repeal push; Moore’s spot said flatly that McConnell’s Republicans “lied about repealing Obamacare.”
In an interview at one of his final stops, Strange acknowledged that the narrow failure of the “skinny repeal” bill had depressed voters, even though he’d cast his vote with McConnell and the president. “They’re frustrated, I share their frustration,” he said.
Jones, the Democrat, is a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted two conspirators in a 1963 bombing of a black church. The general election is set for Dec. 12.
Alabama Republicans, who during the Obama years drove Democrats to near-extinction, were operating as if the winner of their primary and runoff would glide toward victory. At his final rallies, Brooks said voters had a choice of letting “the swamp” decide who went to Washington or sending a conservative disrupter to replace Sessions.
“If it’s a Roy Moore and Mo Brooks runoff, there will be hell to pay in Washington, D.C.,” said Brooks at one rally, as the “DITCH MITCH” banner waved from the audience.
Mitra Malek in Huntsville, Ala., contributed to this report.
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