MONTGOMERY, Alabama — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell narrowly escaped humiliation at the hands of Alabama’s voters here on Tuesday, with his preferred candidate in a contested Senate primary only advancing to a runoff after a late assist from President Donald Trump.
That victory could be short-lived. Hard-right conservative Judge Roy Moore looked likely to coast to a first-place finish in what will turn out to be the first round of voting, with McConnell’s favored candidate — incumbent Sen. Luther Strange — appearing set to come in second, according to Decision Desk projections. The run-off election will be held in September.
Rep. Mo Brooks, a Tea Party darling, looks likely to come in third and miss the cut.
McConnell’s leadership team threw its weight and millions of dollars behind Strange, who was appointed to the seat earlier this year and is widely viewed as an establishment ally more likely to support McConnell’s agenda.
But with Strange sagging in the polls, Trump surprised political observers last week and came to McConnell’s aid — giving Strange his “complete and total endorsement” and recording robocalls on the Alabama senator’s behalf. That decision came even as the president was making his displeasure with McConnell widely known.
It appears to have been enough to get Strange to the second round, but not nearly enough to top the first round of voting. Moore, a controversial figure who rose to national prominence refusing to take down a monument of the Ten Commandments at his courthouse, will enter the run-off as the favorite.
McConnell needed a big lift because he got behind a weak candidate
Strange was never a perfect candidate, and it’s clear he’s headed to the run-off in large part because of Trump’s intervention.
Former — and now disgraced — Gov. Robert Bentley appointed Strange to replace Sen. Jeff Sessions when Sessions became Trump’s attorney general. That decision has loomed large over the GOP primary. Strange served as state attorney general under Bentley, who resigned amid an impeachment investigation into whether he used state resources for an extramarital affair.
Two Republican members of the Alabama statehouse have since publicly alleged that Strange tried to stop Bentley’s impeachment because he had his eye on the governor’s mansion, though the charge hasn’t been proven.
“While attorney general, Strange held over the head of the governor a criminal investigation while seeking a personal gain, a United States Senate seat, from the governor,” Brooks told reporters on Sunday in Northern Alabama. “His deception was only uncovered when the next attorney general came in.”
But though Strange was an imperfect candidate, McConnell’s allies favored him over Brooks, a House Freedom Caucus member who vowed to wreak havoc on McConnell’s already troubled right flank. Establishment Republicans in the Senate Leadership Fund spent more than $3.5 million on ads in the race. They particularly went after Brooks with a blitz of controversial ads that have slammed him for opposing Trump in the early days of the presidential primary and connected him to Nancy Pelosi.
During the health care fight, McConnell was constantly bedeviled by objections from the far right of his caucus — Sens. Mike Lee (UT), Rand Paul (KY), and Ted Cruz (TX). Unlike Moore or Brooks, Strange is not a part of that caucus. Brooks tried turning the race on a referendum on McConnell, whereas Strange wanted it to be about Trump.
“You will see the establishment quaking in their boots if we defeat Luther Strange,” Brooks told supporters in Northern Alabama Monday evening.
Polls showed Strange was at risk of missing the run-off. And then Trump stepped in.
Trump rides to McConnell’s rescue
Conservative voters in this deep red state handed Trump a big victory in the 2016 presidential primary, and then did so again in the general election. More than 55 percent of the state’s voters still approve of Trump’s job performance, nearly 20 points above the national average.
Trump’s robocalls reached Alabama homes this week. Ads played every 30 minutes on the radio featuring word of Trump’s endorsement and quotes from the Alabama chair of his presidential primary. In the spots, Strange simply promised to fulfill the president’s campaign promises: the border wall, repealing Obamacare, and tax reform.
Brooks didn’t quite figure out how to rebuff Trump’s endorsement. At a campaign rally on Monday, the conservative House member campaigned at a tractor store adorned with Trump-Pence banners and a Trump bobblehead. Brooks even argued Trump had been “misled” by Washington Republicans into endorsing Strange, an attack which had the downside of suggesting the popular president didn’t know what he was doing.
None of it was enough to overcome the impact of Trump’s endorsement. The president’s backing appears to have saved Strange’s skin — at least for now.