Alabama voters for the sixth time since 1914, will step into the polls on Tuesday to determine their party nominees during a special U.S. Senate race.
The stakes are high: Republicans know that their statewide primaries have lately decided the eventual winner. Voters haven’t elected a Democrat to statewide office since 2006, or to the Senate since 1992. [GOP profiles | Democrat profiles]
Turnout expectations, GOP infighting and a President Trump endorsement are among the storylines being closely watched by pundits around the country.
For example: There’s an intriguing alliance of President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitchel McConnell, whose relationship, otherwise, seems to grow more prickly by the day. They’re riding the same horse in the race, GOP incumbent Luther Strange.
“There is just so much going on in and around this election and not just with the candidates,” said Cal Jillson, professor of political science Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “I think it does have implications beyond the state of Alabama for the divisions within the Republican Party.”
Said William Kristol, founder and editor-at-large of the “The Weekly Standard”: “Normally, these kind of off-cycle, multi-candidate primaries don’t usually have national implications. But McConnell has invested heavily in Strange that he’s made it kind of a test of establishment versus grass roots.”
The biggest surprise in the Senate campaign occurred on Tuesday, with Trump’s bolt-out-of-the-blue endorsement of Strange. Nationally, many Trump devotees have been lining up behind U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks of Huntsville, viewing him as a stronger supporter of the president’s “America First” agenda.
Brooks, on Thursday, called on Trump to rescind the endorsement and jumping to his side, although that appeared to be going nowhere as the week ended.
All nine candidates in the Republican field have pushed to position themselves as Trump stalwarts, and for good reason. Trump won Alabama by the widest margin of victory since the 1972 presidential election, and remains popular among the state’s GOP leadership even as his national approval ratings have swooned.
Even Strange’s skeptics acknowledge that the endorsement is a boon for his campaign. The latest polls show Strange running either first or second, joined by former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, with a Sept. 26 runoff being a near-certainty. Brooks trails in third place.
“It’s obviously a little bit of a curveball and a feather in the cap for Senator Strange,” said Michael Johns, co-founder and national leader of the conservative tea party movement who served as a speechwriter under President George H.W. Bush in 1992.
“It’s, honestly, the first time I’ve scratched my head on a decision (Trump) has made since he took office on Jan. 20,” Johns said.
Leaders of other conservative groups that back Brooks were equally perplexed.
“Our concern is the D.C. establishment is entirely too fond of Luther Strange,” said William Gheen, president of the Americans for Legal Immigration PAC.
Strange’s campaign has rallied around the Trump endorsement with TV spots painting Brooks as a “Never Trumper” based on statements made during the 2016 presidential primaries. At the time, Brooks backed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for the GOP nomination.
Longtime Alabama political observer William Stewart doesn’t believe that Trump’s endorsement of Strange is, by itself, a “game changer.”
“Traditionally, Alabamians have never liked ‘outsiders’ telling them who they ought to vote for,” said Stewart, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alabama. “This was true even back during the days of FDR.”
He suggested that the true effect would be to “diminish Moore’s vote.”
Stewart said that Brooks has been more “consistently conservative” than Strange, who is viewed as “D.C.’s man in Alabama.” Strange, prior to being appointed in February to the Senate seat formerly held by Jeff Sessions, served six years as state attorney general and spent much of the 1980s and 90s as a lobbyist.
“I think if Strange comes out ahead, it will show the Washington establishment is still able to exert considerable power outside the Beltway,” said Stewart. “On the other hand, if Brooks or Moore comes out ahead, it will show that Alabamians prefer to pick their own senator, if you please. This would mean no diminution of support among our people for Trump as president.”
A Strange defeat could be a severe blow to McConnell, whose Senate Leadership Fund has poured millions of dollars into attack ads against Brooks and, more recently, Moore. In some respects, the super-PAC has become the biggest player in the special election outside of the candidates themselves.
Founded in January 2015, the Senate Leadership Fund is an offshoot of Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, which focuses more on presidential elections. As such, the PAC has become a go-to destination for major GOP donors with the sole interest of retaining a Republican majority in the Senate. Among its leaders is McConnell’s former chief of staff, Steven Law, who recently told Politico: “McConnell has made it very clear that Luther’s race is his number one political priority right now.”
Up until the Alabama primary, the PAC mostly stayed out of primary battles. (It has, more recently, signaled that it also intends to spend millions of dollars during Nevada’s primary election next year in support of U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, who is viewed as vulnerable.)
In Alabama, the PAC has gone all-in on attempting to turn voters away from Brooks and Moore. One particular attack ad even sought to tie Brooks to Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
“If Luther Strange is not the nominee – and especially if he doesn’t even make the runoff, which is a distinct possibility – then Mitch McConnell’s donors are going to be furious at McConnell for wasting $8 million,” said Quin Hillyer, a Mobile-based political columnist whose writings often appear in national publications. “McConnell’s perch could even be in jeopardy.”
A Strange win on Tuesday and during the runoff, however, could equate to a big win for Trump and McConnell.
“It appears that Donald Trump made the endorsement because he suspects Luther Strange will win and he wants to be able to take some of the credit for that and argue that it’s five-for-five in special elections where his brand has come out on top,” said SMU’s Jillson, referring to previous special election victories for Republicans this year in Kansas, Georgia, Montana, and South Carolina.
Said Bruce Oppenheimer, a professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville: “Undoubtedly, if Strange wins, the president will take credit (as will McConnell). Perhaps that will hold some Republican senators from deep red states closer to the president for the short term. But I doubt that its impacts will persist through the 2018 elections because a series of other events will intervene. Plus, many states are not like Alabama, and a Trump endorsement or being supportive of Trump may not play the same way.”
Indeed, most political observers believe that the 2018 midterms will offer up a different storyline than what is playing out in Alabama.
Alabama’s primary is expected to draw modest numbers of voters, whereas most political observers expect 2018 to be a banner year for midterm turnout.
Alabama has previously held special elections to fill vacated Senate seats in 1914, 1920, 1938, 1946 and 1976, according to analysis by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill recently said he anticipates a 20-25 percent turnout Tuesday, which is lower than a typical primary which brings out 30 to 32 percent of voters.
A 20-25 percent turnout could be beneficial for GOP candidates polling behind Strange, Moore and Brooks. Alabama State Senator Trip Pittman, the only candidate from coastal Alabama, is expected to do well Tuesday in Baldwin and Mobile counties.
“When you have seven to eight candidates running in both of these primaries, it’s easy to focus on the top two or three and totally forget what impact the other candidates could make and who they are taking votes away from,” said Gary Nordlinger, a professor at the graduate school of political management at George Washington University.
The middling turnout could also disqualify the Alabama election from serving as any kind of national predictor for 2018.
“Special elections traditionally have a much lower turnout so you are really going to be getting a small percentage of an already small percentage of voters in the primary,” said Capri Cafaro, a former Democratic leader of the Ohio State Senate and the current executive-in-residence at American University’s School of Public Affairs in Washington, D.C.
Tim Hagle, associate professor of political sciences at the University of Iowa, said that Trump’s popularity in Alabama makes it harder to “sell the race as a referendum of his presidency.”
“We still have a lot of time before the 2018 elections and a lot can happen between now and then,” said Hagle, who has noticed “more than a few stories” surfacing in recent months about the 2020 presidential election and the Iowa Caucuses.
“It is far too early to talk seriously about possible challenges to Trump for the Republican nomination,” he said. “Whether in regard to the Iowa Caucuses or the New Hampshire primary, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to talk seriously about someone challenging an incumbent for the party nomination until at least after the midterms.”
Hagle also notes that Democrats are poised “to make gains” during the 2018 elections, although he doubts a “there will be any sort of sweep.”
Democrats are generally not viewed as a serious threat to GOP nominees during Alabama general elections. Voters last elected a Democrat to the Senate when Richard Shelby ran as the party’s nominee in 1992. He switched to the Republican Party two years later.
But that doesn’t mean Democrats aren’t trying. Doug Jones, a Birmingham lawyer who is polling near the top of that field, said there is a “tremendous amount of interest out there” and that he anticipates more attention being paid to the race once the primary is over.
Jones recently secured a key endorsement from Georgia congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis. On Thursday, former Vice President Joe Biden toss his support behind Jones. “I’ve gotten unsolicited phone calls from congressional leaders in the House. There is a real keen eye on this race. Everyone knows it’s the summer and a low-key race nationally right now, but I think there is a lot of interest in this race outside of Alabama. Particularly for Democrats, in part, because it’s Jeff Sessions’ seat.”
Cafaro, at American University, isn’t so sure about Jones’ optimism, even though the Democratic Party was heavily involved in nearby Georgia’s special election for the U.S. House seat once held by Newt Gingrich. In that race, pro-Democratic PACs spent millions of dollars to support Jon Ossoff, only to see him lose in June to Republican Karen Handel.
“The performance demographics of Alabama are inherently skewed against Democrats,” Cafaro said. “Even if there was a ton of external money that would be invested in the campaign, it might actually be a detriment in a sense that it may be interpreted as ‘coastal elites are coming in to take over Alabama.'”
Nonetheless, the December general election outcome could be telling, said Nordlinger, professor at George Washington University.
“It’s the kind of thing where Hillary Clinton got 34-35 percent so I guess Hillary is the minimum you can expect from a Democrat from a national level,” he said. “If a Democratic candidate gets, say 45 percent in December, that’s kind of an eyebrow raiser to me.”
Another Democratic candidate who’s performing well in the Senate polling is Robert Kennedy Jr., who shares the name of the famed Kennedy family even if there is no relation.
“How lucky is this guy?” said Nordlinger. “I have a feeling if his name was ‘Gary Nordlinger,’ he wouldn’t be doing nearly as well.”