Some Thoughts on Today’s AL Senate Primary Run-Off
I think that people are reading too much into this situation as it pertains to Trump and his political influence. It also assumes too much in the way of this being a reflection of national politics.
I don’t have time for a well developed post, so here are some key bullets:
- While it is true that the the two candidates, former (because he was removed) Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Roy Moore and sitting Senator (appointed to fill the Sessions seat) Luther Strange, have important differences, let’s not forget that they are hardly polar opposites, politically speaking. More to the point: once in Washington* they are likely to have nearly identical voting records. Moore will simply be more vocal than Strange and be more likely to express his own personal, and sometimes peculiar, ideology.
- Trump picking Strange was logical insofar as why not pick the sitting Senator who had voted as Trump needed him to vote? Plus, history dictates that the appointee in these situations tends to have the inside track.
- Timing was key. Yes, Strange is McConnell’s choice and Trump has been publicly feuding with McConnell. However, Trump endorsed Strange just before the anti-Mitch tweetstorm. Had Trump gotten upset about with Mitch a little earlier, who knows if Trump would have endorsed Strange.
- Trump’s continued dedication to Strange is more about winning than it is about any grand plan.
- Strange’s problems are not so much because of a clear ideological fight within the GOP that has national implications, it is because he was appointed by Governor Bentley, whom many think Strange should have been more zealously investigating as the then Attorney General of Alabama. There was more than a whiff of quid pro quo at the time of appointment, including an initial decision to not have a special election, but to let the term play out. Bentley later plead to some minor crimes and resigned to avoid more serious prosecution. These are the things that damaged Strange within Alabama politics.
- Moore is really the more Trumpian of the two candidates and had Trump really thought all of this through, he might have endorsed Moore. So while it is true that Trump wants Strange to win so he can say he influenced the election, the reality is is that Moore really is more representative of the kind of politics that helped Trump win the GOP nomination, and the electoral college, in 2016.
- Moore’s more recent signature issue was opposing same sex marriage. This resonates with a large section of the GOP base, especially in the socially conservative deep south. Note, too, while he was removed from the bench twice, both times it was in defiance of the federal government. Defying the feds still have a lot of resonance in Alabama and it fits perfectly with the whole “drain the swamp” business. (I think recent GOP base concern about trans rigths elevates Moore as well because of the SSM issue).
So, in short, three things to remember:
- Despite the drama, these are just two slightly different flavors of ice cream. This is not some stark ideological choice.
- A lot of Moore’s advantage over Strange is based in state GOP politics, so trying to extrapolate this out to some national party significance seems misguided to me.
- While a Strange win would be an ego boost to Trump, and give him some cache for future campaigns in terms of proving he can bring the vote, a Moore win is actually more ideologically and temperamentally in line with Trumpism, so it is rather hard to see that as a real loss. This part does matter to Trump, as he would like to show that he can bring out voters by making an endorsement and an appearance (but that really has little to do with how a Senator Strange behaves v. a Senator Moore).
The most important thing to remember: while this race likely does choose the next Senator from Alabama, it is still an intra-party competition and we should not get carried away making it sound like there is some gulf of a difference between these two candidates.
The fact that Trump didn’t stay out of the endorsement game until he could back the right candidate from his POV is just an example of his lack of experience in politics. Had he held back and waited to endorse, the stories today would have been about how Trump was transforming the party in his image (and being able to take credit for motivating voters since at the moment that seems the likely outcome).
The reality of both a likely Trump “loss” or an alt-reality in which he can claim Moore for his own is that either narrative over-sells Trump’s importance in this race and undersells the local politics of it all.
*There is still a general election to be had versus Democratic nominee Doug Jones. I do not think he has a chance, so for all practical purposes today’s run-off likely is choosing the junior Senator from Alabama.