BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (CN) – Alabama’s former Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, twice suspended for defying the law, will face a runoff election in September against Luther Strange, who was appointed to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions when he became U.S. attorney general.
With more than 90 percent of the votes counted, Moore led with 39 percent of the votes in the Republican primary Tuesday, to Strange’s 33 percent. Strange was Alabama attorney general until then-Gov. Robert Bentley appointed him to Sessions’ empty seat. Congressman Mo Brooks came in third, with 20 percent of the votes in the crowded field of 10 Republicans and eight Democrats.
Moore was elected Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court in 2001 but removed in 2003 by the Alabama Court of the Judiciary for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument he’d commissioned from the Alabama Judicial Building, in defiance of the order of a federal judge. He was elected chief justice again in 2013, and suspended in May 2016, for ordering state judges to continue to enforce the state’s ban on same-sex marriage, in defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court. Moore appealed his suspension and lost and resigned in April this year.
President Donald Trump endorsed Strange, whose appointment to the position was not without controversy. As attorney general, Strange was in charge of investigating Gov. Bentley’s affair with a former aide. Just before Bentley appointed him to the vacant Senate seat, Strange wrote a letter to the Alabama House Judiciary Committee, asking it to stop the impeachment inquiry.
Bentley resigned after the Alabama Ethics Committee found probable cause that he had violated ethics and campaign finance laws by using state resources to carry out and conceal the affair. He resigned and agreed to be banned for life from seeking elective office in Alabama. He was replaced by Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey.
Moore arrived to vote for himself Tuesday on his horse Sassy. He said he hoped for a big turnout because “there is a lot of motivation out there to change Washington. And I appreciate the people understanding that it’s not the money from Washington that’s going to buy this election, it’s the people of Alabama who are going to vote in this election.”
Voter turnout, however, was less than 20 percent, according Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill’s website.
Democrat Doug Jones won his party’s nomination outright, with more than 62 percent of the votes. Jones, a former federal prosecutor, in 2002 successfully prosecuted former KKK members Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry for their part in the 16th Street Baptist Street bombing that killed four African-American girls in 1963.
Moore called the results a “wonderful victory” and said the “silk-stocking Washington elitists (who) try and control the vote of the people of Alabama has failed.”
He apparently referred not only to Trump’s endorsement of Strange, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose super PAC reportedly spent $8 million on Strange.
As the final votes were being tallied, Moore offered an olive branch to all of his opponents but Strange.
“I extend my hand of friendship to my fellow candidates who did not make this runoff to be held on September 26,” he said. “Those candidates ran an honorable and ethical campaign. They ran on their own merits and not on the negative PAC ads of my opponent in this campaign.
“We need to go back to the recognition that God’s hand is still on this country. We must be good again before we can be great and we will never be good again without God.”
He added: “I have been a fighter all my life. … I fought in the judicial branch to stand for traditional marriage and I fought to retain the acknowledgement of God in the display of the Ten Commandments in the judicial building. In this race, I’ll fight to see that the people of Alabama will retain their voice in the United States Senate.”
In his speech, Strange said the runoff election will define the future of Alabama for a long time.
“President Trump called me a week ago tonight and said, ‘Luther, I want you to be elected to the Senate because you understand what I am trying to do to make America great again. You know the problems that need to be addressed on the ground in Alabama. I love the people of Alabama,’” Strange told his supporters.
He said he welcomed the coming one-on-one contest. “Really, what it all boils down to is who’s best suited to stand for the future of this country with our president to make sure we make America great again. … The president could have picked anybody in the state of Alabama and he picked me. I’m so grateful for that.”
Jones, the Democrat, said in his victory speech: “I want to be an independent voice who is not beholden to a president or a party leader. I’m going to be beholden only to the people of the state of Alabama.”
He added: “All my life I have been trying to work for folks to make sure people have equal opportunity and are treated fairly, they are treated the same under the law, they are treated with dignity and respect. You know in the last couple of days we have seen all that tested. Fifteen years ago, I actually went up against the Klan and we won. It took a long time to put those guys in jail and let me tell you something, I thought we had kind of gotten past that, but we obviously haven’t, and we’ve got a lot of work to do and I think that the crowds we are seeing and the solidarity with the people of Charlottesville shows that.”
The runoff election for Republicans is Sept. 16. The general election will be Dec. 12.
Nomination by the Republican Party is tantamount to election for statewide elections in Alabama, which voted 62 percent to 34 percent in the Trump-Clinton presidential race.