Luther Strange’s tenure in the Senate is not even four months old, having been handed his Alabama seat by a scandal-plagued governor who resigned on the cusp of impeachment by lawmakers in Montgomery. But Republicans in Washington are going all out to rescue Strange in his campaign this year, treating him like a beloved Senate veteran.
The multimillion-dollar push in a state that Democrats have almost no chance of winning is intended to help Strange muscle through a crowded primary field that includes two bomb-throwing conservatives apt to cause Mitch McConnell some major headaches should they defeat the appointed senator.
The Senate Leadership Fund, the powerful super PAC with close ties to the majority leader, has already reserved $2.65 million in TV airtime and is pledging up to $10 million in the conservative state. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has warned political consultants about working for Strange’s competitors. One of Strange’s challengers is already complaining that McConnell is stifling his fundraising.
And influential GOP senators are sending not-so-subtle signals that they aren’t eager to have anyone but Strange return to the Senate after the Aug. 15 primary and a potential runoff in September.
“I won’t mention any names,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), also a two-time NRSC chairman. “But we do need people who are interested in being constructive, because obviously we have a razor-thin margin of 52 [votes] and we can’t go backwards. We need to go forward.”
The rally behind Strange, a former Tulane University basketball player whose 6-foot 9-inch profile is befitting of his “Big Luther” moniker, is in one respect unsurprising: The GOP conference has a longstanding policy of defending its incumbents. That standard will play out in other states this cycle where Republicans are facing primary threats, such as Arizona and Mississippi.
“The message needs to be sent that we protect our incumbents,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). “Before there’s ever a discussion about other potential races [where] we may want to pick up a new seat, first and foremost we have to make sure that our colleagues understand that they’re a priority.”
But it’s also true Strange’s two most formidable opponents in the Alabama GOP primary — Rep. Mo Brooks and Roy Moore, a former state Supreme Court chief justice — would inject some uncertainty to an already balky Senate majority by taking hardline social positions and potentially obstructing their agenda. It doesn’t hurt that Strange is polished, predictable and low-key, in addition to having existing relationships with many Republicans from the South.
Meanwhile, Brooks and Moore are attempting to capitalize on Strange’s establishment backing. In Brooks’ view, the support coalescing behind Strange is merely another example of the Washington “swamp” that Donald Trump pledged to drain on the campaign trail.
“For these Republican swamp critters to spend millions upon millions of dollars protecting an appointed placeholder, appointed by a disgraced governor, I just don’t get it,” Brooks said in a recent interview from the Capitol. (In response, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the third-ranking Senate Republican, noted of the four-term lawmaker: “He’s part of that swamp, though. When did he get elected?”)
Other Strange allies say Brooks is plenty swampish himself, having received donations from the National Republican Congressional Committee, as well as the political action committees of former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his successor, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. He was also a leadership-backed “Young Gun” in 2010.
Moore argued that the influx of cash and resources into the Alabama race will ultimately matter little.
“The people of Alabama don’t buy this sort of political approach,” he said in a phone interview. “To spend up $50 million on a candidate that hasn’t been elected and was appointed by a governor that was impeached? That seems to be strange.”
Moore then corrected himself: “I should say, unusual.”
The conservative jurist is currently leading in the polls, but national Republicans hope to push Strange at least to the primary runoff on Sept. 26 and then win there. Moore has strong name identification from his time on the state Supreme Court, although Strange himself has won two statewide races as lieutenant governor and then as attorney general.
Brooks and Moore could siphon support from each other, while Strange backers were relieved when Alabama Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh — who could’ve plucked votes from Strange — said earlier this month that he would not run for the seat.
Establishment Republicans also believe they have a straightforward strategy to taking down Moore and Brooks: Hammering them as reluctant Trump supporters in a state where the president is still deeply popular. Brooks, who endorsed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for the GOP presidential nomination, previously called Trump “destructive” and complained of his “gutter-mouth tendencies.” Moore’s wife, Kayla, also backed Cruz in the primary.
“I’ve always been supportive of President Trump and his agenda and that’s what people in the state that I talk to care about,” Strange said in an interview. “My two opponents, I haven’t looked at their record but I don’t think they were supportive of President Trump.”
And Strange, who replaced Jeff Sessions when he was confirmed as attorney general, embraces the backing from fellow Republicans in Washington.
“I’m really proud to have the support of my colleagues. They, more than anyone, knew and worked with Jeff Sessions and for them to find me the worthy successor to Sen. Sessions is very encouraging,” Strange said. “I feel very comfortable being compared to Sen. Sessions.”
The support for Strange is not unanimous. Cruz — whose old presidential campaign manager, Jeff Roe, is now working for Strange — notably declined to endorse Strange when asked by POLITICO, saying he still abides by his practice of staying out of primaries involving incumbent senators.
For his part, Brooks — who has also faced attacks from the Senate Leadership Fund that he’s been an ineffective lawmaker — argues that he was “instrumental in my communications” with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in crafting the House’s bill to repeal Obamacare and ultimately muscling it through the chamber. And Moore also says he’s supportive of Trump’ agenda.
“I agree with him on many things. Not because I know him, but because I know things need to be changed on our health care, education, military, foreign relations,” Moore said. “I support the president’s attempt to change things.”
Moore would certainly be an outlier in the Republican conference and proudly brags about being “not part of the establishment.” He was removed as the state’s chief justice in 2003 for opposing the removal of a Ten Commandments statue from the state Capitol, but was later elected again, before then being suspended for not enforcing the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage. He maintains that anti-gay marriage position today and says the Supreme Court had “no authority” to legalize it.
Brooks, meanwhile, has argued in the past that Democrats have declared a “war on whites” and has made his mark in the Capitol for his hardline stances on immigration.
Both Brooks and Moore declined to say whether they would support McConnell as Republican leader.
“I don’t know Sen. McConnell," Moore fumed. "Obviously he doesn’t support me. He called up consultants and made it very difficult to raise money."
Strange will have his own questions to answer. The biggest liability is likely the circumstances in which Strange was tapped by former Gov. Robert Bentley, who was embroiled in a lurid sex scandal before he resigned earlier this year. Last November, Strange — then the attorney general — asked a House committee investigating a potential Bentley impeachment to hold off while his office conducted “related work.”
Brooks says he professes “no judgment one way or the other” about Strange’s history with Bentley. And Strange himself has argued that there was no impropriety, saying last month shortly after Bentley’s resignation that “everything I did was working with and on the advice of the best public corruption team in the United States in America.”
Democrats have no illusion that they can flip the Alabama Senate seat, and they have no plans for now to get behind a candidate in their field. But the chaotic GOP primary has nonetheless prompted them to peer one eye down south.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said the campaign arm is “following the developments in Alabama very closely.”
Indeed, the battle in Alabama appears likely to get nasty, expensive and unpredictable.
“I can’t second-guess the primary,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, the state’s senior senator. “I don’t know. It’s Aug. 15, that’s a long time. You kidding me?”