Tuesday’s primary in the special election to succeed former Republican U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions turned out much the way we expected.
On the Republican side, former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore placed first with 39 percent, well short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a run-off, followed by appointed U.S. Sen. Luther Strange with 33 percent, and U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks with 20 percent. Four other candidates combined for the remaining 9 percent. That Moore placed first is not especially surprising as he has a very committed base of cultural conservatives. Strange, who was appointed to the seat by a scandal-plagued (and now former) Governor, took fire from both Moore and Brooks during the primary. The constant attacks have made it difficult for him to truly embrace the mantle of incumbency. Still, there may be an upside for Strange in the run-off. It is possible that voters have already heard and processed these attacks, making it harder for Moore to draw blood.
There has been much speculation that Moore has the advantage going into the September 26 run-off. While it’s easy to see why some observers came to that conclusion, it’s equally possible that the run-off playing field is relatively level. Most expect Moore to grow his level of support, but he may have a low ceiling. Moore has a rock solid base of about 35 percent and was able to expand it to 39 percent in the primary, but it’s possible that there isn’t much room to grow beyond that. Further, Strange’s surrogates focused most of their attacks on Brooks, leaving Moore as the one candidate who didn’t sustain much damage in the first round. It’s a good bet that voters will be reminded that Moore has been suspended twice from the Supreme Court bench over the placement of the Ten Commandments in his court room and for abuse of authority for ignoring federal court rulings related to same-sex marriage.
The events of the last few days notwithstanding, President Trump is still popular in Alabama. Moore argues that he is the candidate who will be more supportive of Trump’s agenda, but Strange has Trump’s endorsement. Without an exit poll, it’s hard to know how much the late endorsement helped the incumbent, but it certainly didn’t hurt and blunts Moore’s claim that he is more loyal to the President.
With the caveat that Senate special elections are odd ducks and special election run-offs are peculiar beasts, Strange and Moore start the run-off on pretty even footing. It would be surprising to see either candidate open a substantial lead going into September 26. It is worth watching what the NRSC and the Senate Leadership Fund does in the run-off. Do they work to build up Strange or focus on taking down Moore? Both?
On the Democratic side, former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones won the nomination outright, taking 66 percent of the vote, compared to 18 percent for Robert Kennedy, Jr.; five other candidates combined for the remaining 16 percent.
Jones, 63, was born and raised in Alabama. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Alabama in 1976 and a juris doctorate from the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University in 1979. His first job out of law school was as a staffer on the Senate Judiciary Committee where he worked for then-Democratic U.S. Sen. Howell Heflin. Heflin, who retired in 1996, was the last Democrat from Alabama to serve in the Senate. Jones then spent four years as an Assistant U.S. Attorney before going into private practice in 1984. In 1997, President Bill Clinton appointed Jones to be U.S. Attorney. In that role, he gained prominence for the successful prosecution of two members of the Ku Klux Klan for their roles in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Jones stepped down as U.S. Attorney in 2001 and returned to private practice.
The Republican run-off has piqued Democrats’ interest in the general election. A Jones-Moore match-up could be interesting; a Jones-Strange match-up less so. But, this is still Alabama, which Trump won with 62 percent of the vote and where Republicans control nearly all the levers of government. Furthermore, turnout in the primary was just 18 percent. Republican ballots accounted for 72 percent of ballots cast. So while the general election might be more interesting, it is still uphill for Jones and Democrats.
The contest will stay in the Solid Republican column for now.