BY MILO KAHNEY
On Sept. 26, firebrand conservative Roy Moore defeated incumbent Luther Strange in the Alabama Republican primary runoff for the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by Jeff Sessions. Moore, the former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice, has a history of challenging the Republican establishment, while Strange is more closely aligned with Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell. Strange was the state’s attorney general before former Alabama governor Robert Bentley appointed him to the Senate in February. President Donald Trump’s endorsement of Strange put him at odds with former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who endorsed Moore. Moore’s victory against Strange may have a profound impact on the 2018 midterm elections and the future direction of the GOP.
Alabama is a deeply conservative state, where Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 28 percent in the 2016 presidential election. Trump’s approval rating in Alabama hovers around 60 percent, despite a historically low national approval rating. Strange’s loss is unlikely to reflect negatively on Trump, but rather be seen as a sign of Trump’s unorthodox positions. In a lot of ways, Trump is more like Moore than Strange. Moore has been twice removed from the state Supreme Court, once in 2003 for ignoring a federal order to remove a statue of the Tenth Commandment and again last year for repeated ethic violations. Moore has also used racial slurs in speeches. For example, at a rally in Florence, Alabama, he referred to Native Americans and Asian Americans as “reds and yellows.” He has also claimed that parts of the United States operate under Sharia Law and, like Trump, he has questioned whether Barack Obama was born in the United States. In the week before his win, Moore demonstrated his support for the Second Amendment by pulling out a gun in the middle of a rally. This pattern of offensive statements and disregard for the law mirror Trump’s divisive presidential campaign.
Strange’s loss also spells trouble for the GOP establishment. Anti-establishment candidates are running against more mainstream, seasoned politicians in other states as well. In Arizona, a state where Trump won by less than five percent of the vote, Republican Sen. Jeff Flake has been hostile to the Trump administration and now faces opposition from conservative former Arizona state senator Kelli Ward. Earlier this year, Flake released a book titled the Conscience of a Conservative, where he frequently criticizes Trump. Meanwhile, Ward is a passionate Trump supporter and has claimed that Flake supports open borders. In a show of support, Trump tweeted “Great to see that Dr. Kelli Ward is running against Flake Jeff Flake, who is WEAK on borders, crime and a non-factor in Senate. He’s toxic!” Flake is a reliable establishment voter, and the intraparty division being exposed could hurt the Republicans’ chances of winning the Arizona senate seat in 2018. In Nevada, a state where Trump narrowly lost, the incumbent Republican Dean Heller faces what is expected to be a tough primary race. Heller is amongst the GOP senators most hostile to the Trump administration, stating last year that he was “100 percent against Clinton, 99 percent against Trump.” His Republican primary opponent is Danny Tarkanian, a firm Trump backer. Tarkanian’s campaign essentially revolves around the premise that he will uphold Trump’s policies more effectively than Heller will. With a Senate map that heavily tilts Republican, Nevada offers a promising seat that the Democrats will be looking to fill. The fractures within the Republican party, demonstrated by the race between Heller and Tarkanian, could weaken the party’s chances of winning the seat.
Moore is running against Democrat Doug Jones in the general election on December 12th. In conservative Alabama, winning the Republican primary is usually akin to winning the general election. No Democrat has won a Senate race in the state since 1992, but Jones could put up one hell of a fight. Jones offers a stark contrast to Moore. He is a prosecutor who famously convicted two Klansmen who were responsible for bombing a church, killing four black girls, in the 1960s. Pollsters at Opinion Savvy and JMC Analytics say that Moore is only leading by 6 and 8 points, respectively. A Fox News poll released October 17th even has Jones tied with Moore, each sharing 42 percent of the vote. The last time Moore ran against a Democrat in a statewide election was for the Alabama Supreme Court, when he defeated Bob Vance with only 51 percent of the vote.
The race between Moore and Jones is seen as close enough that former Vice President Joe Biden went down to Alabama to stump for Jones. The Cook Political Report, a highly esteemed group of election analyzers, gave the state a likely Republican lean; Alabama is usually solid Republican. Jones, however, lacks adequate funds to compete against Moore. Jones has raised less than $300,000 since declaring his candidacy, compared to Moore’s $1.4 million. Even though Jones is unlikely to win such a high profile seat in such a conservative state, a single-digit loss in a state where Trump won by more than twenty points could cause Republicans to rethink their current tactics.