BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (CN) — Twice-removed former state supreme court justiceRoy Moore defeated Donald Trump-endorsed incumbent Luther Strange on Tuesday in Alabama’s Republican primary for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The Associated Press reported that Moore beat Strange by 9 percentage points.
It was a strange race in a strange political year for Alabama.
Moore, 70, was twice removed from the Alabama Supreme Court, in 2003 after defying a judge’s order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from his courthouse, and in 2016 for telling the state’s probate judges to defy federal orders on same-sex marriage. Nonetheless, he remains enormously popular in Alabama, and he showed it by his convincing victory in the special primary.
Strange, 64, was Alabama’s attorney general when Governor Robert Bentley appointed him to Sessions’ vacant Senate seat in February. As attorney general, Strange had asked that impeachment proceedings against Bentley be delayed because his office was investigating him, though he later denied that there was such an investigation. Appointing Strange to the Senate seat effectively removed him from the Bentley investigation. Then in March, the day after Bentley fired the state police commander, a state police officer revealed that Bentley, who was married, was conducting a sexual affair with a top aide, also married. Bentley’s sexually explicit phone call to the aide became public; his wife of 50 years filed for divorce, and he resigned the governorship in April after pleading guilty to two misdemeanor campaign finance violations.
President Trump endorsed Strange in the special primary, and traveled to Alabama to do it again last week, as did Vice President Mike Pence, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell helped drum up $10 million in donations for the incumbent. Strange’s loss in Alabama, where Trump is widely popular, confused the Republican political landscape, leaving incumbents and pundits wondering how much weight the president or the majority leader may swing in next year’s elections.
Moore was supported by Alabama’s Evangelical voters and, further confusing the political winds, by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon.
“I believe we can make America great but we must make America good,” Moore said in his victory speech Tuesday night. “We cannot make America good without acknowledging … that sovereign source of our law, liberty and government, which is almighty God.”
The election result in overwhelmingly Republican Alabama reveals deep frustration with Republican-controlled Congress. Moore’s success may trigger other Republicans to challenge incumbent Republicans in primaries before the 2018 midterm elections.
Moore on Tuesday donned a cowboy hat and mounted a horse to ride to his polling station in Gallant.
An hour away, outside Birmingham, voters trickled into the polls in Pelham. Former Pelham Mayor Bobby Hayes cast his vote for Strange.
“I have zero confidence in Roy Moore,” he said. “I have been around a long time and know what happened with him. If someone in his court had disobeyed his orders, there would have been trouble. How can the head of the Supreme Court not enforce the law and abide by an order handed down by a higher court?”
Moore announced his run for the Senate in April this year, just days after the Alabama Supreme Court upheld his removal from the bench.
Pelham resident Carol Colvert switched sides during the campaign.
“I originally voted for Luther Strange, but I became upset with his association with the Washington group,” Colvert said. “I feel like he would sell out the state and would not represent my Christian convictions as well as Roy Moore.”
One voter in Pelham told Courthouse News he went to the polls expecting to vote for the Democratic candidate and didn’t realize it was a Republican runoff. He voted for Roy Moore, but refused to give his name.
Before polls closed Tuesday, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill warned that a new state law prohibited crossover voting.
Merrill wrote in a letter: “This morning, reports from several voting locations have indicated that poll workers have been identified assisting or allowing voters, which were marked as having cast a ballot for a democratic candidate in the primary on August 15th, to vote a Republican ballot. This letter is intended to serve as a reminder that this is voter fraud.”
The law, enacted this year, makes crossover voting a Class C felony punishable by 366 days to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000.
Turnout for the special primary was low, according to Marty Connors, former head of the Republican Party in Alabama. Connors said the election results show that Alabama Republicans are upset that despite controlling both houses of Congress and the White House, Republicans have been unable to enact major legislation, such as tax reform or repealing the Affordable Care Act.
It comes down to broken campaign promises, Connor said.
“We’ve got these people up there who’ve said multiple, multiple, multiple times we will do this if you elect us to a majority and they haven’t done it,” Connors said. “So I think Joe Six-Pack out there is just going, ‘To hell with all of you. Let’s send an absolute rebel up there.’”
Connors said Moore’s victory should encourage others to challenge incumbent Republicans, “not because incumbent Republicans are particularly bad, but they haven’t done what they said they would do.”
After Trump stumped for Strange in Huntsville on Sept. 22, Trump backtracked, saying he “might have made a mistake” in the endorsement, because of how the media would report it.
“Here’s the story,” Trump said, “if Luther doesn’t win, they’re not going to say we picked up 25 points in a very short period of time. They’re going to say, ‘Donald Trump, the president of the United States, was unable to pull his candidate across the line. It is a terrible, terrible moment for Trump.’”
Trump had endorsed Strange in a series of tweets, which, The New York Times reported today, appear to have been deleted from Trump’s twitter feed.
Moore will face Democratic nominee Doug Jones, a former federal prosecutor, in the Dec. 12 election.
Few observers give Jones a chance in the general election, though according to Connors, Democrats believe Moore is the weaker candidate.
Alabama Democratic Party Chairwoman Nancy Worley said people will tire of mud-slinging, building walls, vitriol about immigration and lack of action. She said Jones will run a unifying campaign.
“Doug Jones is a person that will translate his platform into action and he will do the job he says he’s going to do,” she said. She called Jones an “honest, good man who has no scandal surrounding him and has never been removed from office and someone who is well trusted and well liked.”
As U.S. attorney in the Northern District of Alabama since 1997, Jones prosecuted two members of the Ku Klux Klan for their involvement in the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing, which killed four children in 1963.
Worley said she hopes voters will examine the candidates’ records and public statement, not just their 30-second television advertisements.
“Everybody’s going to see that the two-party system is alive and well,” she said.
Courthouse News reporter Tracey Dalzell Walsh contributed to this report.