By Matthew Foldi
The upcoming Senate primary in the Yellowhammer State is poised to have deep ramifications regardless of its outcome. Top officials from both the Trump and Obama administrations have taken sides, giving the race added national significance. The Republican side is portrayed as an insider vs. outsider battle, whereas the Democratic side will test just how far name recognition can go, as well as Joe Biden’s clout, while he ponders another presidential campaign.
Incumbent Senator Luther Strange was appointed to the job a few months ago by former Republican Governor Robert Bentley, but this was not without controversy. Bentley resigned shortly after Strange’s appointment pending his likely impeachment by his own state legislature. Strange was Alabama’s Attorney General immediately before his appointment, and it was unclear in the immediate aftermath of his appointment if his office was investigating Bentley at the time of his appointment.
Since his appointment, Senator Strange has been a reliable vote for Mitch McConnell on everything from healthcare to the Supreme Court, so it’s unsurprising that the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund is fully backing Strange and is willing to spend up to $10 million to defend Strange; McConnell himself “has made it very clear that Luther’s race is his No. 1 political priority right now.” Some of Strange’s challengers are running virulently anti-McConnell campaigns, with one of his opponents, Congressman Mo Brooks, going so far as to state that McConnell should probably step down.
Here’s how the race is shaping out for each of the three main contenders:
Former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore is likely to win one of the two top spots in the primary, but since no candidate is likely to hit 50 percent there will probably be a runoff a few weeks later. Moore is beloved by many of the state’s evangelicals for his time on the Supreme Court, which he was ultimately removed from for refusing to remove the Ten Commandments from the grounds in 2003, but was subsequently reelected in 2012. Moore was removed from the bench a second time for defying the Supreme Court’s landmark same-sex marriage ruling. In this current election, he has even earned an endorsement from Chuck Norris.
Moore has escaped much of the flak from Strange’s allies until recently, since most of their energy has focused on ensuring that Brooks doesn’t clinch one of the top two spots.
Most polling has Moore well positioned to clinch one of the two spots in the primary runoff, so Strange’s allies are likely just working to ensure that Strange tops Brooks for the other top spot.
Congressman Mo Brooks was an ardent Ted Cruz supporter during the presidential primary, but this is currently damaging his electoral prospects due to a clip of him saying “I don’t think you can trust Donald Trump with anything he says.” Cruz himself is likely to sit out the primary, though his top strategist Jeff Roe is advising Strange.
Trump is currently very popular in Alabama, and Brooks has lacked the resources to fight back against these attacks against him. Fortunately for him, FreedomWorks PAC launched a last-minute endorsement of him, though it might be too late.
While Brooks isn’t giving up his seat to run in this election since it is irregularly schedule, he’s feeling some pressure at home, as Republican veteran Clayton Hinchman who lost his right leg serving in Iraq is already challenging him in his own congressional district. Shortly after Hinchman announced, he “signaled that he could adopt similar attacks on Brooks’ lack of sufficient loyalty Trump, although, least for now, he appears to be keeping his powder dry on that front.” This campaign certainly seems serious, and it has already attracted support from prominent national Republicans, including Ward Baker, a close McConnell ally, looking to defeat Brooks. This race is such a priority for McConnell that the National Republican Senatorial Committee “has warned consultants they’ll be cut off from future work if they assist Strange’s opponents.”
Senator Luther Strange has been a reliable vote in D.C. and he touts his support for President Trump’s agenda on a constant basis. Despite Strange’s support for Trump’s agenda, Trump almost entirely stayed out of this race, even though he expressed interest in endorsing in intra-party battles both during the election (where he endorsed Renee Ellmers, who lost renomination) and after (where he endorsed Jan Timken, who won in Ohio to be the state GOP’s next chair). With a week to go before the primary, Trump did ultimately endorse Strange in a tweet.
McConnell himself personally lobbied the Republican National Committee to spend some resources in the race, which took far longer than it seems that he wanted.
A wild card in this race might be Jeff Sessions himself. Strange was initially appointed to the Senate to replace Sessions when Sessions became Attorney General. Sessions was one of Trump’s earliest and most ardent supporters, but Trump has made no secret of his disappointment that Sessions recused himself from anything related to the Russia investigation and in recent weeks has called Sessions “beleaguered.” These attacks on Sessions have disappointed many Alabama Republicans who supported Trump because Sessions is widely beloved in his home state. At times it seemed that Trump was poised to fire Sessions, which prompted Brooks to declare that he would withdraw from the race if both Sessions reentered the race and all the other candidates withdrew. Sessions ultimately was not a candidate in the election (Trump’s newly-appointed Chief of Staff General John Kelly recently assured Sessions his job is safe), but Brooks was probably not making that proclamation from a position of strength, and it does show how popular Sessions remains among the state’s voters.
All of the focus around the battle for the nomination has likely taken some focus off of Alabama’s new governor, Kay Ivey. While she is likely to run for a full term, the Republican field already has several credible figures in it, but the focus on the Senate primary gives her some breathing room and allows her to focus on running the state. While Ivey served under Bentley, the two ran on separate tickets (since Alabama’s Governor and Lieutenant Governor are elected separately), and Bentley’s resignation seems to have had minimal effects on her own approval ratings.
While the local and national ramifications for Republicans are obvious, the Democratic primary is not without drama of its own.
The most serious Democratic candidate is Doug Jones, a former United States Attorney in the Northern District of Alabama. Jones has endorsements from Alabama Democrats such as Congresswoman Terri Sewell and from prominent Democrats from around the country including Joe Biden and Georgia Congressman John Lewis. However, a Kennedy might topple Jones’s path to the nomination.
Robert Kennedy, Jr. is not even a member of the famed political dynasty, and yet he is posing an incredibly serious threat to Jones’s nomination. Jones has raised more than ten times the amount of money Kennedy has, and yet recent public polling shows Kennedy leading the Democratic pack with almost 50% of the vote and Jones far behind at just over 25%.
Democrats have sometimes had back luck running legitimate candidates in southern states, and if Kennedy wins the saga would continue. In 2010, South Carolina Democrats nominated Alvin Green, an unemployed veteran to serve as their candidate for US Senate. In this cycle, “Texas Democrats don’t have candidate for governor.”
While Robert Kennedy lacks any actual familial dynastic connection, the national ramifications of someone with a famous name winning a primary could factor into other races, such as Illinois’ gubernatorial race where JB Pritzker and Chris Kennedy (an actual Kennedy), who are both heirs to political dynasties of their own rights, are running for the Democratic nomination.
More famously, musician Kid Rock is considering a Senate run of his own in Michigan, although it is unclear if he could legally appear as “Kid Rock” on the ballot or not.
If Kennedy defeats Jones, candidates with famous names around the country can rejoice for at least a day or so.
The first round of voting occurs on August 15; its significance remains to be seen, but it is clear that both primaries in Alabama are worth keeping an eye on.