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Alabama GOP U.S. Senate primary runoff battle heads down to the wire

A Roy Moore victory would be win for religious conservatives — and a loss for Trump and McConnell

♦By Rich Shumate, editor

BIRMINGHAM (CFP) — With just a week to go before Alabama Republicans decide on their U.S. Senate nominee, the burning political question across the Yellowhammer State is, can Roy Moore really pull it off?

Former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore

Polls show Moore — an unapologetic culture warrior twice elected and twice removed as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court for defying federal courts — has a clear shot at knocking off U.S. Senator Luther Strange, which would be politically embarrassing for both President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who have backed Strange to the hilt.

Trump, who despite his political difficulties nationally remains popular in Alabama, will campaign with Strange in Huntsville on the Friday before the runoff, even though Moore — who has said he believes God put Trump in the White House — has also cast himself as a solid supporter of the president’s agenda.

U.S. Senator Luther Strange

Five statewide polls taken since the first round of primary voting in August have shown Moore with a lead beyond the statistical margin of error; in three others, the margin between the candidates was not large enough to draw inferences about the state of the race.

The latest poll, a September 18 survey from JMC Analytics, showed an inconclusive margin between the candidates. However, that was a marked shift from the same poll in August, which had Moore with a 19-point lead over Strange.

About 13 percent of voters polled in the survey said they were still undecided.

Moore got a major boost on when he was endorsed by the candidate who placed third in the first round of voting on August 15, U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks.

“We are in an epic battle between the people of Alabama who put America first and the Washington swamp that hopes to buy our Senate seat and put America last,” Brooks said at a September 16 Moore campaign rally in Huntsville.

The battle in Alabama has become a proxy war between the Senate GOP leaders and their intra-party critics, who have embraced the Moore candidacy as a way of giving McConnell a black eye — and possibly saddling him with a Republican caucus member who has publicly and repeatedly called for McConnell’s ouster.

Most recently, Breitbart News, the website run by Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has been boosting Moore, even as the president has waded further into the fray for Strange.

A victory by the Moore would also cheer Democrats, who haven’t won a Senate race in Alabama in 25 years. Waiting in the wings for the GOP runoff winner is Doug Jones, a former federal prosecutor from Birmingham, whose uphill task in deep red Alabama might be less uphill against someone with Moore’s controversial past.

Strange, 64, was appointed to the Senate in February by former Governor Robert Bentley after Jeff Sessions was named as Trump’s attorney general.

At the time, Strange was Alabama’s attorney general, and his office had been involved in investigating the governor’s conduct. Bentley also handed Strange another gift, delaying a special election to permanently fill the Senate seat until November 2018, which would have given Strange nearly two years of incumbency before he had to face voters.

But after a sex scandal forced Bentley from office, new Alabama Governor Kay Ivey reversed course and ordered a special election.

The circumstances of Strange’s appointment, and the perception that it might have been the result of a political deal with the disgraced Bentley, have dogged the senator throughout the campaign, even though he has strongly denied any impropriety and no evidence of a corrupt bargain has surfaced.

Moore, 70, first gained national notoriety as a local judge in 1995 after battling the ACLU over his practice of opening court sessions with a prayer and hanging the Ten Commandments in his courtroom.

He parlayed that prominence into election as chief justice in 2000 but was forced out in 2003 after he had a display of the Ten Commandments installed in the rotunda of the state judicial building and then defied a federal judge’s order to remove it.

Moore was once again elected chief justice in 2012, but in 2016, he was suspended by a judicial disciplinary panel for the rest of his term for ethics violations after urging local officials to defy the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

After losing an appeal of his suspension, Moore resigned from the Supreme Court to run for the Senate.

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