(CN) – On Sept. 26, Republican voters in Alabama will head to voting booths to decide a runoff election between Roy Moore and Luther Strange that’s more than just picking another U.S. senator. The Alabama runoff has become a fight over the style – not substance – of the candidates and could signal how the GOP base thinks of Congress.
Over the past few weeks, the Alabama candidates have tried to prove which one of them will best stand up to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has the best temperament to take on “The Swamp,” and – at a time when Republican majorities in Congress have not passed a major piece of legislation since Inauguration Day – who might quell Alabama voters’ dissatisfaction with Congress.
On one hand, there’s Strange, Alabama’s former attorney general who was appointed to fill the Senate seat left vacant when Jeff Sessions was tapped for attorney general in the Trump administration.
Challenging him is Moore, Alabama’s former chief justice. Moore was twice suspended, once for refusing to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments in 2003 and again in 2016 for ordering judges not to comply with the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage.
On Aug. 15, Alabama held a primary that chose Doug Jones as the Democrat candidate the Senate seat and triggered the runoff election between Moore and Strange. Turnout was low – less than 20 percent of registered voters.
According to Marty Connors, former head of the GOP in Alabama, the runoff between candidates so ideologically close you could “separate the two with dental floss” comes down to a dissatisfaction with Washington.
“It’s not Trump,” Connors said. “It’s the Senate and to some degree the leadership in the House. It’s just frustration building. Now don’t get me wrong: Roy Moore will always have his votes in a primary but under normal situation, this should not be close.”
Strange entered the August primary with key endorsements from top Republicans, including President Donald Trump and McConnell.
Connors said Strange was always seen as the heir apparent to the Senate seat. He made the right career moves. He positioned himself well. The feeling was that his rise to senator was inevitable.
To be a senator from Alabama requires a delicate balance, Connors said. While the state runs red, it also relies on large government spending on NASA projects and the Redstone Arsenal, home of the U.S. Army’s missile program.
“We will rail against big government but vote like hell for defense spending,” Connors said.
But the timing, as luck would have it, caused the Strange campaign to be surrounded by whiffs of corruption. Strange was appointed to the senate spot by then-Gov. Robert Bentley. Strange’s office was investigating Bentley at the time for misusing state funds. Bentley resigned in April.
Moore, however, rode to his polling place on his horse Sassy and bolstered by his strong, loyal backing. While Trump endorsed Strange, a large percentage of evangelical Christians – supporters of Trump – flocked to Moore, the candidate running against Trump’s endorsement.
Over the last few weeks, Moore collected endorsements from the likes of former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who heads the House Freedom Caucus, threw his support behind Moore, as did the Senate Conservatives Fund. Even Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson and actor Chuck Norris lent their one-two punch of celebrity to Moore’s campaign.
Former presidential adviser and current executive chairman of Breitbart News Stephen Bannon threw his weight behind Moore. And Politico reported Breitbart appears to be putting effort into supporting Moore and undermining Strange.
Jeff Poor, editor of Breitbart.tv who has written several stories about the race, has taken a handful of trips to Alabama to cover the primary. Asked if Breitbart has a goal in covering the race, he wrote in an email to Courthouse News, “I’m not sure there is a ‘goal,’ at least for me.”
Poor said the race boils down to the power struggles in the Senate. “In my opinion, it is a test of the strength of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s leadership,” Poor wrote. “He is playing a big role in Luther Strange’s campaign. If Strange loses, it could be a sign of the power and influence McConnell is able to actually yield.”
But Tom Bradford sees Strange as a better candidate for Alabama, someone better suited in the Senate.
It’s about placing the right member of the team in the right position to best represent the land of Auburn and the Crimson Tide according to Bradford, who sits on the board of the Alabama Policy Institute and is president of National Christian Foundation of Alabama. During the race, Bradford gave his personal endorsement to Strange.
In a video, Bradford tells how he sponsored Strange’s high school fraternity and how Strange “accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior” when he was 16.
“I would be okay with either one of them,” Bradford told Courthouse News. “I just think Luther would do a better job. Sort of like in football, you want to be sure to put the right players in the right positions. And I see Judge Moore as more a defensive back, or linebacker. And Luther’s more of a quarterback or running back.”
Bradford would like to see Moore appointed as a federal judge, perhaps to the Supreme Court.
Christians support both candidates in the runoff election, Bradford said. “Roy Moore has been very outspoken about his Christian faith for 20 years and Luther has not,” he said. “He doesn’t speak much about it.”
Meanwhile, a poll conducted by Opinion Savvy and Decision Desk HQ in the week after the primary election found evangelical voters in the poll supported Moore at 57.5 percent, Strange at 27.9 percent and 14.6 percent were undecided.
Of the respondents the pollsters asked, 71 percent said they were evangelical Christians. Of those, 88.1 percent approved of Trump’s performance.
Moore leaned into his support from evangelical Christians, posting a letter signed by 53 pastors from Alabama and beyond supporting him as a candidate in the days leading up to the August primary.
The letter read: “We are ready to join the fight and send a bold message to Washington: dishonesty, fear of man, and immorality are an affront to our convictions and our Savior and we won’t put up with it any longer.”
Meanwhile, Strange’s supporters have attacked Moore’s stances on other areas. The Senate Leadership Fund – a PAC whose goal is to “to protect and expand the Republican Senate Majority,” according to its website – highlighted a Washington Examiner story that showed Moore was unfamiliar with the Dreamer program, asking a radio host to describe it for him.
Moore polled higher than Strange at the end of August, with the average poll finding the former judge ahead by an average of 11 points. But Strange has the larger war chest and the better ground game, Connors said. According to the FEC, Moore had raised about $400,000 as of Aug. 26 while Strange had almost $3 million.
The key to the outcome of the Sept. 26 runoff will be turnout at a time when “we’re thinking about football and stuff,” Connors said. If voter turnout drops lower than it was for the primary then Moore will win, he said. If it rises, Strange will keep the Senate seat.
“Who knows what’s going to happen? I genuinely don’t know,” Connors said.
But there could be one final twist in this election for the next Alabama senator: If Republican voters stay home in the general election Dec. 12, Democrat candidate Doug Jones might have a chance, Connors said.
A twist that would, at least temporarily, turn the crimson tide blue.