It will go down as one of the biggest political head-scratchers of all time.
Luther Strange had everything going for him. He was the de facto incumbent. Supporters literally spent millions of dollars on his behalf. He had the support of a sitting president and vice president. And he had statewide name recognition.
Despite this seemingly strong wind at Strange’s back, Roy Moore trounced him in the Republican primary runoff election. With that defeat, Strange is likely to go down as one of the more tragic figures in Alabama political history.
There was something pathetic to seeing the 6-foot-9 former Shades Valley High School basketball standout announce it was over at his election night event last month. It could be the closing chapter of something he worked toward his entire career: a seat in the United States Senate. (There is some speculation Strange could run again for Senate if Richard Shelby retires in five years).
There were curious circumstances surrounding Strange’s candidacy. Why was the so-called Republican establishment pushing so hard for him? What was it that was so magical about Big Luther that made him the guy? Out of some 4 million people in Alabama, why did the GOP elite see Strange as the state’s most qualified individual to be a U.S. Senator?
The answer everyone seems to be going with is that Strange was preferable to Roy Moore. Senate leadership likely — and probably rightly — saw and sees Moore as a possible obstructionist at worst, or at best somebody unlikely to smile and get with the Washington, D.C., Republican agenda.
One would have to assume Alabama’s senior U.S. Senator Richard Shelby was a driving force in the effort to rally behind Strange. It’s not as if Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) or any of the other power brokers in D.C. Republican politics stumbled upon Strange by happenstance and decided he was their man.
Shelby’s decision to back Strange was not entirely unexpected, but to formally support him in a crowded primary was unprecedented.
Shelby had very public presence working on Strange’s behalf. He hosted fundraisers and appeared alongside the candidate on the campaign trail at numerous events.
When asked about Shelby’s involvement in the race during the primary, Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks — then a Senate candidate himself — chalked it up to Shelby always supporting the incumbent.
Reasonable. But not “always” true.
In 2009, Shelby backed an incumbent’s challenger — ironically, perhaps — in Strange during his initial bid for attorney general. At the time, Alabama already had a Republican attorney general: Troy King, who announced he was running for re-election earlier that year.
To add insult to injury for King, Shelby supported him three years earlier in his initial run. Strange wound up defeating King for the GOP nod and won the general election in a contest against James Anderson. The rest is history.
Why Luther Strange? By being so committed to Strange, the Republican establishment in this state, led by the likes of Richard Shelby, are the reason Roy Moore is the nominee. Birmingham talk show host and former Bob Riley aide Leland Whaley described Moore as a “suicide bomber” and has low expectations for him as a senator, given he tends to come out on the losing side of all of his major battles.
“Roy Moore is a bomb-throwing suicide bomber that will go up there and raise cane and not get much done,” Whaley said on his show in August on the eve of the primary. “He would not be able to work with and build consensus in that role if he keeps the same tactics. And he’ll lose. He’ll always lose. I heard this campaign ad — ‘I stood up for marriage and I stood up for the Ten Commandments.’ He did, and he got beat. And the Ten Commandments aren’t in the lobby of the Supreme Court anymore, and gay marriage is legal in Alabama. You got to fight to win, and you got to fight smart, and he’s not really a fighter — he’s a self-made martyr. You throw yourself in front of a train, make yourself a victim and set up a charity and fundraise.”
Even with Moore’s potential ignitability, the former judge as a candidate this cycle seemed to have many of us reflexively re-checking the date on our calendars. Moore was the in-thing last decade, but over time seemed to lose relevancy. Today, Alabama Republicans are expected to vote for the MySpace of candidates against Democrat Doug Jones.
It did not have to be this way.
There were a number of other possibilities. It was a crowded field. Was Rep. Mo Brooks too much of a threat to the orderly proceedings of McConnell’s Republican-led U.S. Senate? Did they really believe Brooks would not fall in line for an earmark for Huntsville’s Marshall Space Flight Center or Redstone Arsenal?
There were others who flirted with a run, such as State Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, but they quickly received the message to not bother.
Marsh saw this result coming back in May, when he was asked to react to Cornyn’s NRSC discouraging consulting firms from working with U.S. Senate candidates other than Strange.
“All I would ask is that they let Alabama choose its senator,” Marsh said in an interview with the Montgomery Advertiser. “They said ‘Well, we protect our incumbents.’ I said ‘Well, I don’t consider Gov. Bentley’s hand-chosen senator to be the incumbent. I think the people will choose that in an election cycle.”
No, you guys had to have Big Luther. There was no room for compromise. No chance of being open to half a baby or even the rarest of outcomes — half-pregnant. There was no way to find the guy who could straddle the fence like Jeff Sessions — one that would talk the talk and walk the walk, but sort of play by the rules and keep everyone as happy as possible.
What was the thought process?
No need to entertain other candidates. Why let the primary process play out and see what happens? Instead, we’ll hire a bunch of ringer consultants, sink a bunch of money into this race (because it worked so well for Jeb Bush in the presidential election) and that U.S. Senate seat is as good as owned for a generation.
So what if Luther Strange was an empty suit? Who else can run against him? Mo Brooks? No statewide name recognition. Trip Pittman? Everyone knows he’s just using this race to launch his bid for the next statewide race. Roy Moore? He’ll be strong in the primary, but hit a ceiling in the runoff.
Moore never hit that ceiling, and now he is the nominee. Barring some miracle, Moore likely is the next U.S. senator from Alabama.
In a quote often misattributed to Alexis de Tocqueville, 18th century philosopher Joseph de Maistre once said, “Every country has the government it deserves.”
This time, the national and Alabama Republican establishments got the candidate they deserve.