By Michael Scherer
A former state judge who believes Christian biblical morality should invalidate federal court decisions won the Alabama Republican primary Tuesday night, according to a projection by the Associated Press, sending a clear warning signal to President Trump and GOP leaders that conservative, grass-roots anger will continue to roil the party into the 2018 midterm elections.
Roy Moore, who was twice suspended from his job as the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, defeated incumbent Sen. Luther Strange, who was appointed to the seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and was backed by both Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Moore is now the front-runner to win the seat in a Dec. 12 general election. He will face Democratic candidate Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney in Alabama.
For conservative opponents of the current Republican leadership, the victory was a godsend – literally, for many – and a validation of the larger effort to replace the current leadership of the Republican Party with a more populist crowd.
And for McConnell, whose allies committed vast resources to defeat Moore, the loss was the third blow in a matter of hours Tuesday to a man once seen as an implacable political chess master.
Earlier in the day, McConnell was forced to call off a vote on the latest effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, his third failed attempt to muster 51 votes in the Senate.
Hours later, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., a McConnell ally, announced he would not seek re-election in 2018, creating another contested seat that anti-establishment conservatives will try to win.
Former White House strategist Stephen Bannon, who supported Moore's campaign, predicted that the victory would show that the "populist national conservative movement is on the rise."
Bannon and other insurgent activists are now likely to turn their attention to unseating Republican incumbents in Arizona, Nevada and Mississippi.
The defeat of Strange, a 6-foot, 9-inch former prosecutor and lobbyist, could also put pressure on Republican Party fundraisers, who are counting on high-dollar donors to help beat back anti-establishment largesse. With his victory, Moore became the first Republican Senate candidate since the 2014 cycle to overcome a full-scale attack during a primary from allies of Republican leadership and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He also won despite a last-minute push by Trump for Strange, including a barrage of late tweets and a rally Friday in Alabama.
The effect the Strange loss will have on Trump is not yet clear, as both candidates in the race draped themselves in the "Make America Great Again" slogans of the president. At a rally on Friday to support Strange, Trump told the crowd, which included many Moore supporters, that he "might have made a mistake" in endorsing Strange. If Moore won the primary, Trump said at the rally, "I'm going to be here campaigning like hell for him" – prompting applause from the crowd.
In the final weeks of the campaign, Moore faced more than $5 million in spending from the chamber and the Senate Leadership Fund, a political committee aligned with McConnell. Republican voters in the state complained of daily direct mail pieces attacking Moore, and one voter outside Birmingham said Tuesday that he had disconnected his home phone in the final days to block a barrage of recorded phone calls about the race.
The local business community, organized by the U.S. Chamber, also launched a get-out-the-vote effort among the employees of large companies, including the state's significant federal contracting workforce. Strange, the employers argued, was the best person to bring more jobs to the state.
Moore was defended by a loose grouping of anti-establishment conservative activists, including Bannon, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, "Duck Dynasty" star Phil Robertson, and a group of conservative talk radio broadcasters, including Laura Ingraham. But in significant ways, his campaign differed from any other Senate campaign in recent memory. On the stump, Moore, who made the supremacy of a Christian God over the U.S. Constitution the central rallying point of his campaign.
Moore believes that the Founding Fathers made clear in the Declaration of Independence that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation, which requires the Constitution to be interpreted as adhering to the "laws of nature and nature's God."
As a judge, Moore refused to obey a federal court order to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments from his courthouse, and he was removed from his job as a result. In a 2002 legal opinion, he described homosexual conduct as "an inherent evil," and he said during the campaign that he does not believe in the scientific theory of evolution. He argued that the 2005 Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage should not be considered the "rule of law."
In the Senate, Moore has promised to be a similarly disruptive force who will directly challenge the leadership of McConnell. Moore plans to crusade against the Senate practice of requiring 60 votes to move most legislation on the Senate floor, which he does not consider constitutional, and has said he will seek the impeachment of federal judges who defy his view of God's supremacy over the U.S. Constitution. He has also called for military deployment to the Mexican border, and said he would have opposed Cassidy-Graham, the most recent effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, because it was not conservative enough.
Jones and Moore will face off in the Dec. 12 general election, though it is not clear whether Jones will make it a competitive race. Alabama last sent a Democrat to the Senate in 1992, when Shelby won on the Democratic ticket.
The final day of campaigning was filled with colorful campaign displays across the state. At a Monday event in Fairhope, Moore, wearing a cowboy hat and leather vest, pulled a handgun from his pocket onstage. He pointed it to the ceiling and declared, "I believe in the Second Amendment."
Bannon also appeared at the event, along with Robertson, Fox News host Sean Hannity and the British politician Nigel Farage. Bannon attacked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and other Republican establishment leaders, whom he called "the most corrupt and incompetent group of individuals in this country."
"Your day of reckoning is coming," he promised.
In the same speech, Bannon dismissed Trump's endorsement of Strange as immaterial. "A vote for Judge Roy Moore is a vote for Donald J. Trump," Bannon said. "We did not come here to defy Donald Trump."
Although Moore led all public polls in the weeks leading up to the election, turnout was expected to be low, creating the potential for a surprise outcome. In a first round of Republican primary voting Aug. 15, only 425,379 people cast ballots, or less than one-third of the number of Alabamians who voted for Trump in the 2016 election.
Moore won the earlier contest, but because he earned less than 50 percent of the vote, he faced Strange in a runoff. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., was the third-place finisher in the first round.
Political consultants on both sides expected the turnout Tuesday to be only slightly higher. At one polling place in downtown Montgomery, the state capital, only eight voters appeared over the course of an hour. One of them, Mable Greenwood, 58, said she had voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election but was now supporting Moore. "The world, I don't think it's going to be here too much longer," she said, explaining her attraction to Moore's religious message.
"Everything that the Bible said is going to happen, it is happening."