Roy Moore, the insurgent conservative who rose to national fame over his hardline stances on social and cultural issues, knocked off Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL) in the Alabama GOP Senate runoff election on Tuesday.
With the victory, Moore, the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, becomes the Republican nominee for the seat formerly held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and will face off against Democratic candidate Doug Jones in the general election in December. Moore pulled in nearly 55 percent of the vote, defeating Strange in all but four counties in the state.
The race was an unusual one, as it pitted President Trump, who backed Strange, against the same anti-establishment voices who propelled him to the White House. Former chief strategist Stephen Bannon and his far-right website Breitbart, ex-adviser Sebastian Gorka, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin all supported Moore and vigorously campaigned for him. Meanwhile, the Senate Leadership Fund, a group aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), poured millions of dollars into supporting Strange, giving Moore the opportunity to paint his opponent as the establishment’s choice.
Before the results were even official, the Senate Leadership Fund conceded to Moore, writing in a statement: “While we were honored to have fought hard for Big Luther, Judge Roy Moore won this nomination fair and square and he has our support, as it is vital that we keep this seat in Republican hands.” Trump congratulated Moore in a tweet and said Strange “ran a good race.”
Trump’s involvement in the race can best be described as a Hail Mary pass. The run-off result seems to have confirmed Republicans’ greatest fears about the president wading into this race in particular. Privately, Republicans in Washington were worried that Trump’s attempts to choose sides in a Republican primary in a deep-red state could backfire politically at a time when he is still in search of a legislative victory. Trump himself admitted, “the last thing I want to do is be involved in a primary,” but has cited Strange’s loyalty as a reason to go all-in for the incumbent.
In Alabama, Trump’s core base of supporters excused his backing of Strange over Moore, saying he needed to throw his support behind the GOP establishment’s preferred candidate in order to win back some much-needed political capital. Many of those voters feel that too many congressional Republicans are working against the president rather than with him.
Trump enjoys immense popularity in Alabama, a state he won last year by 30 points, and in a normal race his star power would have almost certainly been enough to push his preferred candidate over the finish line. But with Moore ahead of Strange by double digits in some polls leading up to Election Day, it was a risky gamble for Trump from the beginning.
His strategy clearly didn’t work, and now both the president and McConnell will have to brace for the incoming political fire.
Overall, Tuesday was a disappointing day for both men. Not only did Moore defeat Strange—Senate Republicans were forced to yank yet another attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare, and Trump is still in search of a legislative achievement.
Trump-aligned conservatives are now preparing to blame McConnell for the pair of losses, and encouraging the president to go after the GOP brass—a strategy which has routinely proven to satisfy his base. On Friday, Trump traveled to Alabama to speak at a rally on behalf of Strange, where he brazenly tried to push back on Moore’s efforts to tie Strange to McConnell, who remains unpopular with Trump’s base.
“He doesn’t know Mitch McConnell. Luther is a tough, tough cookie. He doesn’t kowtow to anyone,” Trump said. “He’s not a friend of Mitch McConnell. He doesn’t know Mitch McConnell until very recently.”
This effort, too, backfired. And the president essentially made the race a referendum on himself, warning voters that if the incumbent loses, “they’re going to go after me.” Trump even hedged his bets on Strange, at one point suggesting he “might’ve made a mistake” in backing him.
But he also pledged to “campaign like hell” for Moore if he wins the GOP nomination, while acknowledging that Moore “has a very good chance of not winning in the general election.” While it was expected that Strange would defeat Jones handily, head-to-head matchups showed Jones surprisingly in striking distance of Moore.
It remains to be seen how vigorously—if at all—the president will campaign for Moore, who has come under fire in recent years for controversial positions and statements. In 2003, he was removed from the bench for refusing to take down a Ten Commandments monument from the court building. Last year, Moore was suspended for refusing to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. As recently as 2015, Moore has said that “homosexuality should be illegal.”
While Strange has largely aligned himself with Trump during his short tenure in the Senate, he is also known as a team player who largely falls in line with Republican leadership. Sitting Republican senators have expressed concern about Moore and his hardline positions, warning that he could disrupt—to the point of even derailing—the GOP agenda.
The president, who rode an anti-establishment wave to the White House and has been anything but friendly to Capitol Hill Republicans, backed Strange for entirely different reasons. The president, who values loyalty more than any other quality in a lawmaker, spoke on Friday about an instance in which he called Strange to try to secure his support on an effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. Strange was fully in the president’s corner, Trump said, calling that “the coolest thing.”
Vice President Mike Pence, who was in Alabama on the eve of the runoff election to campaign for Strange, tweeted late Tuesday night: “Congratulations Roy Moore! We are thrilled you ran on the #MAGA agenda & we are for you!”