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Tuesday’s bonkers Alabama Senate Republican primary, explained

Trump endorsed the establishment candidate. The "drain the swamp" candidates are leading the polls.

Judge Roy Moore, a frontrunner in the Alabama Senate race, speaks to Alabama’s “only no compromise gun group” on Monday night at a Chinese restaurant. (Vox/Jeff Stein)

HOMEWOOD, Alabama — Kerrick Whisenant loves Donald Trump. But the conservative Alabaman is dumbfounded by the president’s intervention in his state’s election on Tuesday.

The issue: Trump has thrown his weight behind a candidate in Alabama’s Senate GOP primary who Whisenant thinks represents the very “swamp” Trump promised to drain.

“I voted for Trump, but I don’t know how to explain it,” said Whisenant, 41, a construction executive in northern Alabama. “Maybe there was some kind of private deal cut between Senate leadership and the White House.”

Many other Republicans here expressed similar bewilderment. Over two days in Alabama, more than a dozen voters admitted to being deeply confused by Trump’s high-profile endorsement of incumbent Sen. Luther Strange, who has been dogged on the campaign trail by a fog of scandal tied to former — and now disgraced — Gov. Robert Bentley, who appointed Strange to the seat.

GOP Senators Call For Cancelling August Recess To Work On Legislation
Sen. Luther Strange on Capitol Hill.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Two conservatives — Rep. Mo Brooks, a Tea Party darling, and former Judge Roy Moore, a favorite of evangelicals and a lightning rod for controversy — are mounting credible campaigns against Strange.

Brooks has the backing of popular conservative radio hosts like Mark Levin who are typically closely aligned with the president. Moore first gained prominence in national conservative circles in 2003 for refusing to remove the Ten Commandments from his courthouse, and then again in 2015 for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses after same-sex marriage was legalized.

The presence of those candidates gave Trump a golden opportunity to stick it to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose allies have spent millions of dollars supporting Strange. But to the surprise of many conservatives here, Trump is not only passing on the opportunity to hurt McConnell’s preferred candidate — he’s going out of his way to actively help him.

“There must be something going on behind the scenes that we do not know about,” Scott Chambers, a host on 101.1 FM Yellowhammer News, told his listeners on Monday. “We’re just scratching our heads here. What the hell is going on in Alabama?”

Luther Strange: a Senate incumbent weighed down by ties to “the establishment”

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.

But Trump’s “complete and total endorsement” of Strange may not be enough to put the man known as “Big Luther” — he’s 6-foot-9 — over the top. On Tuesday, Alabamans will vote in what’s expected to be the first round of the Senate primary. Unless one of the 10 candidates gets more than 50 percent of the vote on Tuesday, a runoff will be held between the top two contenders in a second round in September.

Polling suggests Strange may not even get that far. That’s despite the backing of Trump, a multimillion-dollar ad campaign from McConnell, and the support of the Alabama business community.

Former Gov. 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 held 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.”

On Monday, Strange held just one public event — at Salem's Diner in downtown Birmingham. President Trump’s robocalls, meanwhile, began reaching Alabama homes.

Mo Brooks: the conservative frustrated and baffled by the president

Strange’s allies have gone on the offensive, with establishment Republicans in the Senate Leadership Fund spending more than $3.5 million on ads in the race. They have gone 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.

It’s no surprise why McConnell would want to thwart Brooks’s rise. 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).

If Brooks wins, he seems likely to join that caucus — and cause further headaches for Senate Republican leadership.

“You will see the establishment quaking in their boots if we defeat Luther Strange,” Brooks told supporters at a tractor dealership in northern Alabama Monday evening.

A cutout of Donald Trump hanging out at a rally held for Rep. Brooks. Trump has endorsed Brooks’s opponent.
Vox/Jeff Stein

Supporters of Brooks say they’re hopeful the ad blitz against their candidate will backfire. They’re optimistic that voters will see the attacks linking Brooks to Pelosi as disingenuous, and they might have point. “I had a couple of uninvolved people heard the Luther Strange thing but decided to get involved in Brooks’s campaign because the ads were so corrupt,” said Tom Cowles, 61, a retired engineer at a Brooks rally.

Asked about the negative ads, Brooks could barely contain his frustration. “Luther Strange is dishonest and unethical. ... It turns out there is no depths of dishonor to which they will not go, no depth to deceit and lying to which they will not go, to win this Senate seat,” he said of Strange and McConnell.

Roy Moore: the fire-and-brimstone judge who has suddenly taken the lead

The feuding between Strange and Brooks has given Moore, once considered a far-out long shot with little chance of winning a Senate race, an opening.

Like Trump, Moore has a credible claim to being an outsider where his opponents do not. Strange was a Washington lobbyist for an oil company before becoming attorney general; Brooks has been in the House since 2011.

“I’m not a politician. I don’t like politics,” Moore told supporters late Monday night. “It’s what God has done through me.”

In an interview Monday night, Moore promised to restore Christianity to the Capitol, said he wanted to fight the rise of Islamic “Sharia law” in the US, and eagerly offered to show Vox his annotations on Joseph Story’s 1833 Commentaries on the Constitution of the US.

“That guy Roy Moore is way, way out there. He won’t even defend the rule of law,” said James Follett, 61, outside a Strange event at a Birmingham diner on Monday morning. “He wants to follow his judgment — not the judgment of the Supreme Court.”

God is frequently on Moore’s lips. “God has taken us, step by step, to the advertising we’ve gotten in this campaign,” Moore said.

On Monday night, about 50 members of BamaCarry Inc. — Alabama’s “only no compromise gun group” — ate at Mr. Fang’s Chinese restaurant in a final push for Moore’s campaign. Moore told the crowd, filled almost exclusively with elderly white people, that the military had become “too weak” and had to be rebuilt.

“Troops need to be trained like they used to be trained: to fight wars,” he told those assembled. “Not for political experiments like transgenderism and political correctness and feel-good stuff that’s going on in the military today.”

The polls will close at 8 pm EST Tuesday; we’ll know by the end of the night if this battle was just a prelude to a September 17 runoff.

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