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Victory by insurgent Moore a blow to President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
BIRMINGHAM (CNN) — In a rebuke to Senate Republican leaders and President Donald Trump, Alabama Republicans have chosen former Roy Moore, a man twice removed as chief justice of the state’s highest court, for a U.S. Senate seat over incumbent Luther Strange, who failed to secure by election the post he gained by appointment just seven months ago.
Moore, 70, who became a darling of Christian conservatives by defying federal court orders on displaying the Ten Commandments and same-sex marriage, took 55 percent of the vote in the September 26 runoff to 45 percent for Strange, who had the backing of both Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“I never prayed to win this campaign. I only prayed that God’s will be done,” Moore told his cheering supporters in Montgomery. “We have to return the knowledge of God and the knowledge of the Constitution of the United States to the United States Congress.”
And despite Trump’s conspicuous support for Strange, Moore said, “Don’t let anybody in the press think that because he supported my opponent that I don’t support him and support his agenda … as long as its constitutional.”
After Strange’s defeat became clear, Trump tweeted, “Congratulations to Roy Moore on his Republican Primary win in Alabama. Luther Strange started way back & ran a good race. Roy, WIN in Dec!”
Strange, who gave up being state attorney general to take the Senate appointment, could not hold his seat despite solid establishment support and a huge financial advantage over Moore. Speaking to supporters in Birmingham, he acknowledged that his campaign failed to navigate the anti-establishment waves now coursing through American politics.
“We’re dealing with a political environment that I’ve never had any experience with,” Strange said. “The political winds in the country right now … are very hard to understand.”
Strange also thanked Trump and said the responsibility for his loss lies with him, not the president.
“If this causes him any trouble, it’s not his fault,” Strange said. “The fault always lies in the candidate or the head coach or the guy holding the ball.”
Moore will now face Democrat Doug Jones, a former federal prosecutor from Birmingham, in a general election on December 12. And although Democrats haven’t won a Senate election in Alabama in 25 years, the nomination of the controversial Moore provides at least a glimmer of hope for an upset.
Jones, speaking to supporters in Birmingham as the results of the GOP race were coming in, predicted that he would win in December once voters began focusing on issues.
“We have the wind at our back,” Jones said. “We believe we have the issues people care about which you have not heard any discussions about. People are concerned about health care and the economy. People want to see this state moving forward. I believe that we can do that.”
Moore’s nomination also means that McConnell faces the unpleasant prospect of having a new member in his caucus who has castigated McConnell on the campaign trail and called for his ouster — no small consideration given that Republicans have a thin majority of just 52 seats in the 100-member Senate.
McConnell went all in for Strange during the primary. The Senate Leadership Fund, a PAC affiliated with the majority leader, poured more than $5 million into the race, the bulk of it for attack ads against Moore.
Both Strange and Moore cast themselves as champions of Trump’s agenda, in a state where he remains popular. But the president put his personal power and prestige on the line for Strange, formally endorsing him just a week before the first round of voting in August and coming to Alabama to campaign with him four days before the runoff.
During Trump’s pre-election appearance in Huntsville, he conceded that his endorsement of Strange might turn out to be a mistake should the senator lose — but that he would campaign “like hell” for Moore if he won.
The battle in Alabama became 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. Breitbart News, the website run by Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, banged its drum for Moore, and former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin campaigned by his side.
The twist in the Alabama race was that Trump was on the side of the GOP establishment, rather than Moore, the insurgent outsider who has said he believes God put Trump in the White House.
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, dogged the senator throughout the campaign, even though he has strongly denied any impropriety and no evidence of a corrupt bargain has surfaced.
Moore 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.