Alabama’s rollicking Senate race has been a star-studded affair involving President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and actors Phil Robertson and Chuck Norris.
The national media is paying attention, with publications and broadcast networks throughout the country descending on Alabama to cover the race pitting Senator Luther Strange and former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore.
“It’s certainly a critical national race,” said Cal Jillson, professor of political sciences at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “All eyes will turn to Alabama over the next week.”
Said Jess Brown, a retired political sciences professor from Athens State University and a longtime observer of Alabama politics: “I cannot think of another U.S. Senate election in Alabama that got so much attention from national political actors.”
But despite the outsider attention ahead of Tuesday’s GOP runoff, most political observers continue to doubt the election will represent a harbinger of things to come during the 2018 midterm elections.
There are certainly plenty of political story lines in Alabama packed into an election that is expected to draw a meager 12 percent of voters on Tuesday.
The highlight is Trump’s backing of Strange – underscored by the rally the president held for the Senator in Huntsville on Friday – while his former chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, has backed Moore.
Alabama is the first time the two allies have squared off, politically, since Trump was elected.
“There are those who think that the potential success of Moore’s candidacy could be a jumping off point for insurgent challengers to sitting GOP senators in 2018,” said Geoffrey Skelley, associated editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, which is produced at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“However, each race will have its own idiosyncrasies and different candidates with certain strengths and weaknesses,” said Skelley. “A Moore win will galvanize insurgent forces in the GOP, but it wouldn’t necessarily guarantee the start of something bigger.”
He noted that 2018 races in Nevada and Arizona will likely feature insurgent candidates facing incumbents who have been critical of Trump. Neither of those states, however, have primary runoffs and only a plurality is needed to win.
“Funny enough, additional candidates in states like Arizona and Nevada might help the GOP incumbents by fragmenting the anti-incumbent vote,” he said.
Said Jillson: “I do think the theme in the 2018 elections will be the establishment candidate versus the tea party insurgent. But in this race, it’s a little mixed up.”
Indeed, Trump’s involvement has led to confusion among Moore supporters, most of whom backed the president during last year’s GOP primary and in the general election. Trump handily won Alabama in November, by a 28.3 percent differential. It was the largest margin of victory in a presidential general election in Alabama since 1972.
As longtime Moore associate and friend Dean Young of Orange Beach said about the crowd at a recent rally for the ex-judge: “I guarantee you that 100 percent of them voted for Donald Trump. I will guarantee you that 100 percent will vote for Roy Moore.”
Trump, during his rally in Huntsville for Strange, said he would back Moore in the general election if the ex-judge wins the runoff.
In a post-debate rally in Montgomery, the pro-Moore forces made it known that while Trump is backing Strange, they are putting their support behind “Trump’s agenda.”
Trump has remained persistent in his support for Strange, even though the current senator is viewed as the “establishment” candidate backed by Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, the chamber’s majority leader.
McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund has bolstered Strange’s campaign by pouring millions of dollars into advertisement. A lion’s share has been on attack ads directed at U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks during the primary and at Moore within the past month.
Strange is also boosted by support from the Chamber of Commerce and the National Rifle Association, which has recently spent over $1 million on ads touting Strange while blasting Moore for being “soft on gun rights.”
Moore, conversely, is backed by tea party organizations and the “Great America Alliance,” which is advised by Andy Surabian, who served as Bannon’s political adviser while the two were in the White House together.
Bannon resigned from this White House duties on Aug. 18, and immediately returned to oversee Breitbart News. The far-right website has since been publishing critical stories about Strange to bolster Moore.
Meanwhile, multiple national news outlets have cited Bannon’s efforts in state elections is to promote candidates who closely align to Trump’s “America First” agenda.
Skelley, in an analysis of the Senate race, said that Moore is “seemingly the more Trump-like candidate despite the fact that Strange has Trump’s backing.” Strange, though, has repeatedly touted his endorsement from the president, and has promised to be loyal toward Trump’s agenda that includes the construction of a Mexico-U.S. border wall and to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, commonly called “Obamacare.”
Skelley calls the president’s involvement in the election a wild card, given that it could bolster Strange’s candidacy in the Tennessee Valley, which is where Brooks did well during the primary. Brooks endorsed Moore last weekend.
“It’s going to be interesting to see if the voters up here will vote against the interest of their congressman whose Republican roots are deep,” said Brown. “Or will they be voting with the president? I’m not certain Trump’s appearance … it may help turn out a voter for Strange, but I don’t think it coverts anyone.”
Meanwhile, both camps are attacking one another for what they view as the political “swamp.” Moore’s attacks have linked Strange to McConnell to highlight what he calls the “Washington Swamp.”
Strange has criticized Moore for his lengthy political career as an example of the “Montgomery Swamp.” Moore’s career includes two removals from the bench; in 2003, for disobeying a federal order to take down a monument to the Ten Commandments and in 2016, after ordering probate judges to enforce Alabama’s same-sex marriage ban despite a U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn it.
Brown said the campaign has lacked in complete discussion of issues that Washington faces.
He criticized the only debate between the two on Thursday, which was a “Lincoln-Douglas style” debate sans a moderator and questions from the press and public, as a “total failure” that simply “made it easier for politicians to hide.”
“We have one candidate who conducts almost revivals to constantly appeal to social conservatism ,” Brown said, referring to Moore.
“The Strange campaign, the entire campaign, is trying to get Republican voters to vote a second time for the president,” Brown said. “But there has been no real discussion on a wide spectrum of issues.”
Moore has led in most polling since the primary. Real Clear Politics, in a review of the polling, showed Moore leading by about 9 percentage points.
Some of that polling has been criticized: Polls which cite Strange in a dead heat with Moore are closely aligned to the Senate Leadership Fund, while other polls – showing a Moore blowout – are either associated with pro-Moore forces or included faulty methodology issues such as the use of landline-only calls to potential voters.
MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, a former Congressman from Pensacola, Fla., said on Friday that he’s heard from “several sources in the middle” of the race that it will be much closer than polling suggests.
But the overall polling numbers favoring Moore has some national Republican strategists nervous. Among them is Mike Murphy, a national political commentator who ran a political action committee for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in 2015 and 2016.
“I think Luther Strange will hold the seat if he is nominated, while I think Judge Moore would hand Alabama’s Senate seat over to Chuck Schumer and the Democrats,” said Murphy, who served as a media consultant during Sessions’ first Senate run in the mid-1990s. “That would make a real gift to Senator Schumer and one that I am hoping Alabama Republicans do not make.”
Trump is also concerned about Moore losing the Senate seat in December. During his Huntsville speech, Trump said: “Roy has a very good chance of not winning.”
Most political observers, however, doubt either Moore or Strange will lose in the general election against Democrat Doug Jones. Though Jones is viewed as a strong candidate, Alabama has long been a deep red state and one that hasn’t elected a Democrat to statewide office since 2008.
A Moore win, though, could carry some political intrigue into December. The ex-judge barely defeated Democrat Bob Vance in 2012 to win a seat on the state Supreme Court, even though Vance was a late entry into the race.
“I think the Republican, whether it’s Strange or Moore, will carry the general election because of the polarization of the American electorate and Southern electorates, in particular,” said Jillson. “The Republican Party identifiers cannot imagine throwing a vote for Hillary Clinton in the presidential general election or throwing a vote for the Democrat in the Senate.”
Said Molly Reynolds, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institute in Washington, about a possible Jones win in December: “I haven’t heard anyone thinking that. But I’ll never say never about anything in American politics.”
For now, the focus is on whether Strange – with Trump’s help – can make political history.
According to Skelley’s research, only 13 of 30 incumbents who faced a primary runoff in a Senate election have gone on to win the runoff.
Even more troubling: None of the 13 were appointed to the Senate seat. Of the 17 who lost, five were appointed to their seat. (Strange was appointed to the Senate seat in February by former Gov. Robert Bentley).
A Strange victory would be a first in U.S. political history in which an incumbent senator who was appointed to the seat went on to win the primary runoff.
Overall, there have been 89 Democratic or Republican primary runoffs for the U.S. Senate going back to 1916. Only nine southern states have held runoffs. Today, there are only eight with the system currently in place, with Florida ending the practice in 2005.
But Skelley said that polling, which shows Moore ahead, could be misleading. He believes that the biggest areas for Strange to make up ground is the largest counties in the state, which were among those Moore struggled with during the primary.
He said that half of the primary votes were cast for other candidates during the primary. Other than Moore and Strange, 28 percent of GOP primary voters backed another candidate.
According to the analysis, the share of white voters with less than a bachelor’s degree in Madison, Jefferson, Shelby, Baldwin, and Mobile counties is well below the state median of 82.4 percent. Moore’s biggest support came from smaller and less well-educated counties or counties “where Trump did better” during the 2016 presidential election.
Skelley believes Madison County is “particularly ripe on paper” to turn out more for Strange since it consists of the “most educated white population of any county in the state.” Trump stumped for Strange in Huntsville, which is the county’s largest city.
Brooks, however, endorsed Moore in the runoff and Skelley believes turnout “will almost surely drop” compared to the primary. Brooks, the hometown guy, won’t be on the ballot.
Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill predicts overall turnout to be about 12 percent, with about 350,000 voters casting ballots in a state with around 3.3 million registered voters. Only about 18 percent of the electorate, or 590,000 voters, showed up for the Aug. 15 primary.
Crossover voting won’t be allowed Tuesday. The Legislature, earlier this year, approved legislation that prevents voters who cast a ballot for a Democrat during the Aug. 15 primary to vote in the GOP runoff. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.