Roy Moore, the controversial former Chief Justice who once defied an order to remove a Ten Commandments monument, is squaring off against the Donald Trump-endorsed incumbent, U.S. Sen. Luther Strange, in an Alabama Republican primary runoff in the special election for the Jeff Sessions’ Senate seat.
The September 26 runoff election is being painted in some corners as a referendum on the Deep South’s support for Trump, and as a bellwether of the president’s influence over Republican primary voters. However, there are some odd elements to consider in this race: The Trump-endorsed incumbent, Strange, was also endorsed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whom Trump has dogged with public criticism, and, in some ways, the bombastic, iconoclastic, and anti-establishment opponent, Roy Moore – who is leading in the polls by a lot – resembles Trump a lot more than the guy Trump endorsed.
Furthermore, Strange was placed in the seat by a scandal-hobbled former governor in a way that engendered controversy back home, and he’s ticked off some establishment Republicans over the years in Alabama. All of that means that there may be enough peculiarities in this race that the results will be tough to extrapolate into a prediction of how other upcoming GOP primaries will go (new polling shows that Moore would dominate Democrat Doug Jones if he makes it to the general election; Strange would defeat Jones, but by less. However, some Democrats see Moore’s past controversies and comments as an open door for them to exploit.)
What do the polls specifically say heading into election day in the closely watched Republican contest? The winner of Tuesday’s runoff will compete in the general election against Jones.
The polls show Moore with a large lead over Strange. The RealClearPolitics polling average shows Moore with a 10.4 percentage point lead over Strange, as of September 25. Moore has led in polling since August, but the margin has jumped in his favor in recent weeks. (You can see the specific polls later in this article.)
Although Trump has tossed support to Strange, polling has shown that those who approve of Trump make up the largest portion of Moore’s supporters. The same is true of Strange, though. After all, it’s a GOP primary. The Optimus poll found that most people know that Trump endorsed Strange.
FiveThirtyEight argues that the primary is a bellwether on Trump’s ability to influence primary voters. It’s an unusual election, though, because Moore is, in many ways, running to the right of Strange (just on Thursday, Moore said “abortion, sodomy, sexual perversion sweep our land.”)
“Trump’s endorsement of Strange never made a lot of sense from either a messaging or policy standpoint. Trump ran as an outsider,” FiveThirtyEight noted. “Strange is an incumbent U.S. senator backed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the pro-McConnell Senate Leadership Fund. He’s the ‘establishment’ candidate. Strange’s opponent Moore, on the other hand, is a lot more like Trump. Both Moore and Trump are populist politicians who have made a political career by running against the establishment.”
Mike Pence also stumped for Strange, but former White House strategist Steve Bannon was stumping for Moore, dividing conservative loyalties further. The president returned to Alabama for a rally in which he stressed that Strange was an ally on Obamacare repeal. Trump, though, said he would “fight like hell” for Moore if Moore beats Strange in the primary runoff, according to CNN.
Here’s a round up of the latest polls in the primary:
Trafalgar Group (9/23-24)
Fox 10/Strategy Research (9/20)
Doug Kaplan, the managing partner of Gravis Marketing, which conducted one of the recent polls, stressed, “The dynamics can change if the undecideds break towards Strange. Then, there is the factor of how many show up. It’s illegal for Democrats to vote if they voted in the Democratic primary last month, so Strange has to get new Democratic voters, who did not vote in the primary to show up for him.”
CNN reports that a Moore win could be a canary in the mine for other races, most notably primary fights in Nevada and Arizona.
Kaplan added, “Another factor working for Moore is his lead with both voters with a favorable opinion and unfavorable opinion of Trump.”
Moore was the top vote getter on the Republican side in the Alabama Senate Special Election during an earlier primary but not by a big enough margin to avoid a runoff.
The seat was once occupied by Sessions, who left to become Trump’s Attorney General.
The president had gone all in, throwing his support to Strange in a state that favored him. There are other localized issues at play, though.
Moore’s messaging mirrors that of Trump himself in November; underfunded compared to opponents, but beloved by some on the far right for his stances on the Ten Commandments and same-sex marriage, he has railed against Washington insiders on the campaign trail. According to USA Today, “Strange and the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund (SLF) spent a combined $10 million on the campaign through Sept. 6, and even more in the weeks after. Moore’s campaign spent just $1.1 million through early September.”
Moore already has high name ID in Alabama though, and he endeared himself to some on the right when he was removed as Alabama’s chief justice in 2003 “for refusing to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments,” reports FiveThirtyEight. The Moore saga doesn’t end there, though. After being removed as chief justice, he won reelection. However, he was then “suspended for declining to enforce the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriages. After losing an appeal, he resigned in April,” reports Politico.
Moore, a former prosecutor, judge, and military police officer in Vietnam, has a history of making controversial remarks. According to Politico, he told The Guardian that Vladimir Putin is “maybe … more akin to me than I know” because Putin opposes gay marriage, and, of transgender troops, he said, “If we’re going to file for hormone treatments and medical surgeries, that’s not making your military stronger. You’ve got to have a disciplined military.”
On the Democratic side, the race was always a bit of a Hail Mary; according to Five Thirty Eight, “No Democrat has won a Senate race in Alabama since 1992, and Trump won the state by 28 percentage points last November.”
Adding another twist, turnout is expected to be low. According to The New York Times, a low turnout would be good for Moore, many experts believe, because “his defiance has only endeared him to his supporters, who are highly likely to show up to vote in any contest where he appears on the ballot.” Moore’s support with Evangelicals also would help him in a low turnout race because they tend to turn out in greater numbers.
Trump recorded a robocall for Strange before the earlier primary in addition to tweeting his support. “He is helping me in the Senate and is going to get the tax cuts for us. He’s doing a lot of things for the people of Alabama and for the people of the United States,” Trump said in the robocall, according to CNN.
There are also the localized concerns. Some observers say that Strange is struggling to hold onto the seat in part because he’s had tense relationships with some in the Republican establishment in Alabama as well as dealing with continued fallout over the fact he was appointed to the seat by former Gov. Robert Bentley, who was being investigated by the Alabama Attorney General’s office at the time Strange was interviewed for the Senate post. Strange was the state’s Attorney General at the time of his appointment to the Sessions’ Senate seat.