Roy Moore, the twice-removed Alabama Supreme Court justice and devout culture warrior, easily won the state’s Republican U.S. Senate primary runoff Tuesday, overcoming millions of negative advertising dollars and opposition from President Donald Trump.
The 70-year-old Moore swamped appointed Sen. Luther Strange to become the GOP nominee for the seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Moore advances to face Democrat Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney, in a special general election set for Dec. 12.
Moore’s double-digit triumph is the first significant electoral blow to Trump since he lost the Iowa caucuses nearly 20 months ago. The president endorsed Strange and flew to Alabama to hold a rally on his behalf, aligning himself with the interests of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell over the passions of his base and his former chief strategist Steve Bannon, who has returned to the helm of Breitbart News.
Trump claimed his endorsement — made at the urging of GOP leaders — had helped Strange, but there’s evidence to show it actually energized Moore’s legion of supporters, who admire the president but were dissuaded by his overtures to vote for a politician who had acquired the backing of many of the establishment forces they revile. With about two-thirds of returns reported, Moore’s lead over Strange was 12 percentage points.
Moore turned much of his insurgent campaign against Strange into a referendum on McConnell, whom he vowed to fight at nearly every turn and promised to attempt to dislodge from leadership once he got to Washington. His nomination comes on the same day McConnell was forced to concede defeat on the Graham-Cassidy health care bill, the GOP’s latest attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.
For the bedeviled GOP leader, the health care failure was a painful legislative setback. But Strange’s hefty loss served as a punch in the gut.
“This is a referendum on McConnell more than anybody,” one Moore campaign hand told U.S. News before polls closed. “He was kicking him in the teeth every time he spoke.”
In addition to Bannon, Moore’s camp earned the backing of former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka, “Duck Dynasty” TV star Phil Robertson, Fox News host Sean Hannity and House Freedom Caucus chair Mark Meadows, who recorded a robocall and dispatched staffer Wayne King to help Moore’s campaign efforts in the final week.
“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,” conceded Steven Law of the Senate Leadership Fund, the McConnell-blessed super PAC that boosted Strange.
What Moore lacked in the sophistication and resources of a polished campaign team, he more than made up for with a dedicated network of churches throughout the state. For many of these pious followers, Moore’s candidacy came from a higher calling.
As the front-runner for the Senate seat, Moore is poised to become one of the most ideologically pugnacious members of the upper chamber, which has struggled to pass big-ticket legislation all year. Moore said he would have opposed the Graham-Cassidy bill, foreshadowing the recalcitrant posture he would bring to the Senate.
Moore campaigned on bringing morality back to government and championed religious liberty as “the civil rights issue of our time.” Prior to this race, he was best known for erecting a monument of the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Alabama Supreme Court. When he was ordered to remove it, he refused, precipitating his defiant ouster from the bench.
Through the years, Moore’s made an array of controversial statements around the country’s changing culture, dubbing homosexuality “an inherent evil” that should be “illegal,” and Islam “a false religion.”
To lament legalized abortion in the country, he wrote a 2007 poem, illustrating God’s anger: “Babies piled in dumpsters, abortion on demand, Oh, sweet land of liberty, your house is on the sand.”
As the GOP standard-bearer, he’ll immediately become a lightning rod for Democrats to use ahead of next year’s midterm elections. The party’s strategists are expected to pressure GOP candidates to say whether they agree with Moore’s past inflammatory statements. A Democrat hasn’t won a U.S. Senate race in Alabama in 25 years, but Jones is a well-liked figure and former Vice President Joe Biden has committed to campaign for him next week.
But for the anti-establishment, grassroots conservative movement that continues to fester in the country, Moore’s win will serve as a galvanizing event.
Even before election day, Bannon began assigning blame to White House aides who he believes misdirected the president. “A real review has to be done of how President Trump got the wrong information and came down on the wrong side of the football here,” he told Hannity on Fox News Monday night.
Like-minded challengers to GOP incumbents are already taking root in places like Arizona, Nevada and Mississippi — and are finding solace in what Moore was able to accomplish.
Kelli Ward, who is challenging Sen. Jeff Flake in Arizona, retweeted a Virginia state senator’s assessment that Moore’s strong showing signaled promise for her own prospects.
“Time for the GOP and donor class to wake up,” she added.
Chris McDaniel, a conservative state senator mulling a campaign to unseat Sen. Bob Wicker of Mississippi, said Moore’s defeat of McConnell “makes our rallying cry, ‘Remember Mississippi’ echo even louder.”
And hours before polls closed in Alabama, one senator decided another campaign was not worth the hassle. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who had already drawn a Republican primary challenger, announced he would not seek a third term, determining that he wanted to finish his tenure free from political considerations.
“The most important public service I have to offer our country could well occur over the next 15 months, and I want to be able to do that as thoughtfully and independently as I did the first 10 years and nine months of my Senate career,” Corker said in a statement Tuesday.
Strange has only been a senator for seven months, but perhaps he was doomed from the start.
According to the University of Minnesota’s Smart Politics website, no appointed U.S. Senator has ever won a primary runoff.