HOMEWOOD, Ala. — Roy Moore lacks the war chest of two chief rivals in his bid to become the next senator from Alabama. He didn’t land the coveted endorsement of President Donald Trump, and doesn’t enjoy the advantages of incumbency.
Yet the controversial former state Supreme Court justice is coasting over his Republican challengers in Tuesday’s closely watched GOP Senate primary. Moore is set to easily secure a place in a September runoff, as the establishment-backed Sen. Luther Strange and Rep. Mo Brooks scrape for the second spot.
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Should Moore become the GOP nominee and the next senator from Alabama, his bombastic personality and antipathy toward Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are sure to make more trouble for the GOP leader, who’s taking constant flak from Trump as it is. McConnell and his allies are spending millions to elect Strange, and in response, Moore has made McConnell the symbol of everything he opposes in Washington.
“I resent people from Washington, raising money in Washington, and sending negative ads to Alabama and trying to control the vote of the people,” Moore said in an interview after a GOP executive committee meeting here. “If the Washington crowd wants somebody, the people of Alabama generally don’t.”
Strange was tapped in February to temporarily assume Jeff Sessions’ Senate seat after he was appointed attorney general. Strange and his supporters have spent the campaign trying to tear down Brooks, a four-term congressman and member of the Freedom Caucus, to ensure Strange slides into the runoff against Moore.
Confident they’ve succeeded against Brooks despite polls showing a close race for second place, the pro-Strange forces recently began running ads against Moore. Leading the way is the deep-pocketed Senate Leadership Fund, which has close ties to McConnell and pledged earlier this year to spend up to $10 million to prop up Strange. It plans to ramp up the attacks once the six-week sprint to a Sept. 26 runoff election begins.
Moore’s national notoriety stems primarily from his stormy tenure on the Alabama Supreme Court. He was removed as chief justice in 2003 for opposing the removal of a Ten Commandments statue from the state Capitol. But Moore was nevertheless reelected to the court, and then suspended for declining to enforce the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriages. After losing an appeal, he resigned in April.
Moore embraces the controversies as a badge of honor.
“What I’ve done is stand for my country, stand for my Constitution, and I’ve suffered accordingly,” said the 70-year-old Moore. “I think controversy will follow you if you stand up for truth. It’s that simple. If you stand up for truth, you’re going to have consequences.”
He’s also prone to teeing off rhetorically. In a recent interview with the Guardian, Moore mused that Vladimir Putin is “maybe … more akin to me than I know” when told about the Russian president’s opposition to gay marriage.
And at a candidate forum here in the Birmingham suburbs, Moore went after transgender troops in the military, telling the crowd of local party faithful: “If we’re going to file for hormone treatments and medical surgeries, that’s not making your military stronger. You’ve got to have a disciplined military.”
Aside from social issues and the Constitution, Moore, a Vietnam War veteran, has campaigned on a platform of a stronger military. Talking to voters, he laments that the United States doesn’t “carry the image around this world that we used to carry.”
Moore — who plans to ride a horse to the polls on Tuesday with his wife, Kayla, — insists he doesn’t engage in negative campaigning, though his annoyance with McConnell and Strange’s allies are clearly growing by the day.
“They’re that out of touch in Washington that they don’t understand that Alabama people aren’t that out of touch,” Moore complained in the interview.
That outspokenness is what has made Moore’s lead in the race so durable, his fervent backers and even those endorsing his opponents say. One voter, Tom Ford of Montgomery, argued that Moore was “unethically removed for doing something that was ethical by an unethical system.”
“The state itself, it does feel the connection with the history of having Judge Moore for so long,” said Matt Davidson of Birmingham, a Moore supporter. “He’s just so thoroughly Alabama.”
Still, national Republicans believe Moore has a high floor but a low ceiling of support. They’re confident they can bludgeon the jurist during the runoff so Strange emerges with the Republican nomination, which would effectively elect him to the Senate seat until 2020 in this GOP-heavy state.
Establishment-minded Republicans in the state say Moore’s provocative persona is wearing thin.
“You got Roy Moore, who’s just had horrible problems with being suspended twice at the Supreme Court,” said Jim Wilson, an Alabama businessman who backs Strange. “That doesn’t resonate very well with a lot of voters, in my opinion. Last thing we want is that type of personality in the Senate.”
Polls have shown Moore steadily leading the sprawling field of nine candidates. A JMC Analytics and Polling survey taken Aug. 5-6 found Moore winning 30 percent of primary voters, Strange with 22 percent and Brooks with 19 percent. A Trafalgar Group poll taken mostly after Trump’s Aug. 8 endorsement of Strange had Moore at 35 percent, Strange at 23 percent and Brooks with 20 percent.
Strange has vastly outraised his competitors, hauling in $2.8 million this cycle, compared with $456,000 for Moore and $540,000 for Brooks, according to the latest figures from the Federal Election Commission.
That financial advantage, and especially SLF’s support, has allowed Strange and his allies to pummel Brooks on the air, particularly over the congressman’s pointed criticism of Trump during the presidential campaign. SLF began piling on Moore earlier this month with an ad chastising the judge for taking $1 million in salary for him and his wife from a Christian charity he founded. (Moore’s campaign has called the ad “blatantly false and misleading.”)
Perhaps acknowledging the voter discontent over the ads, Strange distanced himself from the notion that he’s the majority leader’s handpicked candidate: “I just met Mitch McConnell in February.”
“We had no previous relationship,” Strange told reporters. “I had never met him before. To say that I’m kind of his, quote, guy, is kind of silly, if you ask me.” (Both Moore and Brooks, whose campaign bus now features a “Ditch Mitch” banner, say they would not back McConnell for GOP leader.)
It’s unclear how much Trump’s backing of Strange will boost him in Tuesday’s election; it could make a more significant difference in the runoff, particularly if the incumbent senator repeatedly reminds voters of the endorsement.
That’s what Strange did in front of GOP activists here, describing the out-of-the-blue phone call he received from the White House last Tuesday. He said he was so surprised that he almost drove into a ditch.
After Trump thanked Strange for supporting him and his agenda in the Senate, the president asked the senator what he could do in advance of Tuesday’s election.
“‘Well, Mr. President, whatever you think is appropriate. A tweet wouldn’t be bad,’” Strange said, describing the conversation. “He said, ‘You know, I have 118 million Twitter followers.’ (Trump actually has 35.7 million followers.) I said, ‘I do sir, I know that very well.’”
Trump called Strange again on Thursday to check up on the senator’s campaign. “I’m in this fight with you now, and we need to win,” Trump said, according to Strange.
One of Strange’s biggest liabilities is how the senator was chosen by disgraced former Gov. Robert Bentley for Sessions’ Senate seat. As the state’s attorney general, Strange last November had asked a state House committee investigating a potential Bentley impeachment to hold off while his office conducted “related work.” Strange has said there was no impropriety in his request.
But those insinuations, as well as McConnell’s overt involvement, have apparently stuck, according to Alabama political observers. One poll last week from Cygnal/L2 found Strange with a 42 percent unfavorable rating, while the JMC survey had Strange at 50 percent unfavorable.
That means Brooks backers, should he come in third in Tuesday’s primary, may gravitate toward Moore.
One former Alabama GOP official speculated that while Brooks voters around Huntsville — an area saturated with doctorate degrees that is heavily reliant on the federal government — will go with Strange in the runoff, his supporters elsewhere, particularly in the outlining counties, will break hard for Moore.
“Moore,” state Rep. Ed Henry, chairman of Trump’s Alabama campaign who is backing Brooks, said flatly when asked where the congressman’s supporters go if he doesn’t make the runoff. “Nobody will vote for Luther Strange. The negative ads don’t help him any. Luther Strange is exactly what we’ve had for the last forever how many decades and he is more of the same. Nobody wants that.”
It’s clear the negative ads are leaving an impact on some voters.
“They’re lies. That’s what I think of them,” Celia Waters, a Brooks supporter from Fairhope, said of the ads as Brooks campaigned at a Biscuit King in her hometown. “They’ve not only come against Congressman Brooks, but they’ve also come against Judge Moore.”
Waters declined to say whom she’d back in the runoff should Brooks not make it.
But she added: “I’ll never vote for a liar. I’ll just put it that way.”