What To Watch In Tuesday’s Alabama Special Election Primary

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Senator Luther Strange and Attorney General Jeff Sessions earlier this year.

Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images

President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who have feuded over the failure to pass a health care bill, are a united front in Tuesday’s special election in Alabama.

Both want appointed incumbent Luther Strange to keep Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ old Senate seat. But that united front doesn’t look like enough right now, at least, in Tuesday’s special election primary.

First off, the polls show that Roy Moore, the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, is likely to finish first but fall short of the 50% threshold that would send him straight to a December general election.

Strange is one of nine candidates in the GOP primary — and polls indicate he is fighting for the second spot with Rep. Mo Brooks. Assuming that no one reaches the 50% threshold, the top two candidates will advance to the September runoff. So the Strange-Brooks battle for second place is the race to watch.

For all the talk this year of House races in Kansas, Montana, and Georgia being referendums on Trump — Trump-backed candidates won all three — the Alabama race is a test of something different: Can a political marriage of convenience between Trump’s anti-establishment brand and McConnell’s insider brand ultimately produce a winner?

A super PAC aligned with McConnell has spent about $4 million to boost Strange. Trump joined the fray in the closing days, tweeting out his surprise endorsement of Strange last week — some expected he would stay neutral — and taping a Monday robocall. A Trump-approved super PAC also has chipped in with a $200,000 digital advertising push.

“Senator Strange has already proven himself to be the best possible candidate in this race to stand beside our President and make America great again,” Erin Montgomery, a spokeswoman for America First Action, said in an email announcing the pro-Trump group’s support.

Moore and others have discounted the significance of Trump’s endorsement. “I think the people are not voting for President Trump,” Moore said last week while campaigning in Montgomery, according to AL.com. “They're voting for his agenda, which I firmly believe in.”

Moore has a controversial history nationally: He was suspended from Alabama’s state supreme court after he issued guidance to probate judges in the state to ignore federal court rulings on same-sex couples’ marriage rights. That was actually the second time he was relieved of duty on the state supreme court; about a decade before, he was removed after a federal standoff over a monument with the Ten Commandments. His defiance in both cases has earned him admiration on the right. He recently announced endorsements from more than 50 religious leaders.

Alabama is one of the minority of states where Trump’s approval rating is above 50% — and he remains immensely popular among Republican voters who will decide the Senate race.

Strange’s allies, laser-focused on Brooks, have attempted to paint the congressman as anti-Trump and pro-Pelosi, despite Brooks’ embrace of the president’s agenda. The McConnell forces dredged up remarks Brooks made during last year’s primaries, when he referred to Trump as a “serial adulterer.”

Brooks also was criticized for airing a TV ad that featured audio of gunshots fired at a baseball practice for congressional Republicans in June. Brooks was on the field at the time of the shooting, which critically injured Rep. Steve Scalise, a Louisiana Republican. The ad reaffirmed Brooks’ support for the Second Amendment, even after the attack.

“This makes my stomach turn,” Scalise’s chief of staff tweeted after seeing the spot.

Strange, Alabama’s former attorney general, could pay for his ties to Robert Bentley, the former governor chased from office by scandal and threats of impeachment earlier this year. Critics have questioned Strange’s handling of an investigation into Bentley’s conduct and linked it to Bentley’s eventual appointment of Strange to the Senate seat Sessions left when Trump tapped him to lead the Justice Department.

“I asked the team I put together to follow the truth wherever it led,” Strange told the Associated Press this month. “They did. So the governor resigned.”

Other Republicans competing in the Tuesday primary include state Sen. Trip Pittman; Randy Brinson, head of the Christian Coalition of Alabama; and lesser-known candidates James Beretta, Joseph Breault, Bryan Peeples, and Mary Maxwell.

The Democratic primary has seven candidates, with Robert Kennedy Jr. — a digital marketing executive with a great ballot name but no relation to the political dynasty — and former US Attorney Doug Jones the leading candidates.

Primary runoffs, if necessary, will be Sept. 26, with a general election between the Republican and Democratic nominees scheduled for Dec. 12. Given Alabama’s deep-red Republican status, the GOP nominee will be heavily favored.

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