Alabama’s Game Within the Game

By Jim Ellis

Aug. 18, 2017 — Tuesday’s special Alabama Senate Republican primary sent former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore and appointed Sen. Luther Strange to the September 26th run-off election, but what can we expect from the next round of voting? Will Judge Moore’s momentum continue to thrust him forward despite being badly out-spent, or will the Alabama and national Republican establishment’s strong support for Sen. Strange allow him to overcome his primary election deficit?

On Tuesday, Judge Moore placed first, capturing 39 percent of the Republican primary vote. Just over 423,000 people voted in the election, which will likely be similar to the Sept. 26 projected participation rate. Most of the time fewer people vote in a run-off than a primary, but recent special elections have yielded a slightly different turnout pattern. Sen. Strange garnered 33 percent in the primary and showed strength in the Birmingham area, though he lost substantially in Alabama’s southern region including the metropolitan areas of Montgomery, Mobile, and Dothan.

The run-off wild card may well be Rep. Mo Brooks’ (R-Huntsville) voters. The primary’s third place finisher tallied 20 percent, translating into more than 83,000 individual supporters. Since he placed first in his congressional district (41 percent), and carried his home county of Madison with majority support, northern Alabama will become critical in determining how the run-off concludes. And, considering that Judge Moore received almost the same number of votes as those who cast ballots in the Democratic primary, it is reasonable to presume that the Republican run-off victor will become a heavy favorite to win the Dec. 12 special general election.

Now is when the political game within the game begins in earnest. Though Rep. Brooks lost the Senate nomination on Tuesday, the congressman announced Wednesday that he would seek re-election to his 5th District House seat.

During the Senate race, which featured a unique situation for a sitting US representative because he did not have to risk his current position to run statewide, a credible Republican candidate announced a primary challenge to Brooks for the House seat. Businessman Clayton Hinchman, with close ties to political personnel associated with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), declared his congressional candidacy thus adding further intrigue to both the Senate special election and the impending 2018 AL-5 House race.

Presently, Rep. Brooks finds himself in an interesting position. Whether or not his endorsement of one of the run-off participants would sway enough voters to nominate one or the other is open to debate, but it should be clear that each candidate would want his support.

Remembering it was the McConnell-associated Senate Leadership Fund Super PAC that ran scores of negative ads against Brooks, the perception will be that these same consultants who are now involved in the congressional race will have enough power to either increase the negative attacks against the incumbent, or convince challenger Hinchman to possibly drop his campaign all together.

On the other hand, Judge Moore has a strong base within the Republican primary voting base, not one that produced a majority in the Senate race but certainly bigger than any other candidate. Since Brooks was attacked in the statewide campaign for being opposed to President Trump and thus not in tune with the GOP base voter, lending assistance to Moore could bring the Huntsville-area congressman a new set of political benefits.

Therefore, the potential exists for Brooks to deliver his endorsement for a remaining Senate candidate to not only help elect that individual, but also himself.

Does he endorse Sen. Strange with an agreement that the McConnell forces will retreat from their attacks, or does he go “all in” against the Senate leader’s associated political operation and announce an endorsement of Judge Moore? Or, does he not directly involve himself? The decision will be an interesting one and will likely have ramifications for more that one current Alabama political campaign.

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