A First Look at Alabama’s Special Senate Election

As we mentioned last month, we will be keeping our eyes on the special Senatorial election in Alabama. When President Trump picked Senator Jeff Sessions to become the next Attorney General, it left a vacancy for then-Governor Robert Bentley to fill. Governor Bentley was under investigation and facing possible impeachment over allegations he was having an affair with an adviser and using state money and manpower to cover it up. In April, he resigned as Governor after pleading guilty to campaign finance law violations. Before he resigned, he selected state Attorney General Luther Strange to fill the Senate vacancy, and pushed the special election to next year’s general. After left office, Governor Kay Ivey changed that date, bumping the special up a whole year, and a massive number of candidates jumped in.

The Republican contest is the more interesting one: incumbent Senator Luther Strange is running, and nine of his fellow party members are challenging him, including a Congressman, Mo Brooks. Judge Roy Moore, who was suspended as Chief Justice, resigned from the state Supreme Court to make a run. Two minor candidates, that could still have an impact on the splintered vote, are State Senator Lee “Trip” Pittman (from Baldwin County), and Alabama Christian Coalition President Randy Brinson, who hails from Montgomery. A pile of Democrats have also jumped into the race, but for today, we’ll focus on the Republican side of the contest.

I want to backtrack a bit to the last primary Strange faced. In 2010, Strange became AG by defeating incumbent Republican Troy King in the primary, winning all but King’s home region of southeastern Alabama:

Until Brooks’ entry, the biggest name to challenge Strange is Moore. Moore was elected as the State Supreme Court Chief Justice in 2012. Before his close election that November, he beat out both Charlie Graddick and Chuck Malone for the Republican nomination, and winning just over 50% and avoiding a runoff. Here’s how he did throughout the state against those opponents:

Graddick dispatched Moore easily in his home area of Mobile, and he and Malone buried Moore in Montgomery, but Moore put up a strong fight in the Birmingham metropolitan area, the largest in the state. With a decent performance there, Moore built on his scattered regional support from 2010 and eclipsed both opponents in the primary, avoiding a runoff. Comparing their most recent primary performances, Strange would appear to be favored over Moore:

Strange would likely be preferred in a one-on-one in every major metro area. While Moore would likely win out the further you travel from the cities and in the southeast, Strange would lead in the bulk of the counties that make up 75% of the Republican vote (in darkest blue):

But here’s the problem for Strange: he’s not facing off against a single opponent, he’s facing nine. Strange did well in the Huntsville area, but that’s Representative Mo Brooks’ territory:

State Senator Trip Pittman, a minor candidate, will probably get a hometown effect in Baldwin, one of the two counties making up the Mobile metro area, and one Strange would be favored in against Moore. Randy Brinson’s home base is Montgomery County, an area that went poorly for Moore in both of his previous primary runs and where Strange would be favored. Brinson will likely play up his socially conservative credentials, probably eating some of Moore’s vote, but Moore is running on a broader  “true conservative” platform, arguing against the Republicans’ health care bill that both Brooks and Strange have supported. His social conservative bonafides are well established (he was suspended after attempting to argue his state’s ban on same-sex marriage overruled the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v Hodges), and is aiming to take a bite out of Brooks’ Tea Party image. But the fights between the non-Strange candidates pale in comparison to their attacks on Strange.

Governor Bentley left office in disgrace and was underwater in approval among members of his own party. As Bentley’s appointee to the Senate, Strange may have to deal with any residual disgust left over from that whole affair. But the bigger potential threat is the Senate’s failure to pass ACA repeal, an issue that resonates strongly with conservative voters. The Senator has tried to associate himself closely with the President (going so far as to attack Brooks for disparaging him during the 2016 Presidential primary), but Trump has not formally endorsed anyone in the fight. Any votes that Strange loses to Brooks in Huntsville, or down in Baldwin to Pittman, or rurally to Moore, pushes his overall numbers down. His best case scenario is a first-round win in the primary, but with so many characters and forces at play, that isn’t likely now. His worst case: Brooks and Moore locking him out of a runoff attempt. Before he declared, Brooks mentioned a poll he had conducted that found Moore leading Strange by about ten points, and with himself a not-too-distant third. He’s still apparently behind Strange, but with four weeks to go and a crowded field, anything can happen.

One thing is certain about this primary: it’ll be a night of returns worth watching.