MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore and Alabama Sen. Luther Strange Tuesday night appeared headed to a runoff for the Republican nomination after a bruising campaign that turned on which candidate most favored Donald Trump.
On the Democratic side, former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones easily won the nomination. Turnout was projected to range somewhere 10% to 15% statewide.
With 62% of the vote in on Tuesday, Moore had 41%, riding a strong performance in the Wiregrass and rural Alabama. Strange had 32%, buoyed by the suburbs of Birmingham. U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Madison, had 20% of the vote. Several other candidates polled in the single digits.
In the Democratic primary, Jones took 64% of the vote, well ahead of Robert Kennedy Jr., who polled 19%.
The result meant another six weeks of air wars between Strange — heavily backed by Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. — and Moore, whose base continues to stick by the judge.
The Republican race very quickly focused on national issues, in no small measure due to Strange’s big funding advantage over the other candidates. The incumbent, with the help of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund (SLF), tried to turn the race into a referendum on loyalty to Trump. Strange used devout phrases to describe the president — at one event, he called Trump’s election a “biblical miracle” — while the SLF hammered Brooks over criticisms of Trump he made during last year’s presidential campaign, when Brooks supported Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for president.
No Republican candidate wanted to be viewed as a Never Trumper by an GOP electorate that still approves the president. Brooks pointed to a check he wrote for get-out-the-vote efforts for Trump in Florida last year, while Moore said the “hand of God” was present in last year’s election. But Strange’s praise of the president appeared to sway some Republican voters, like Kendall Hayward of Prattville.
"I'm tired of the fighting in Washington," she said. "We're in charge of all three branches of government and we can't get anything done. It's ridiculous. And I'm hoping Luther Strange will be on the Trump train and bring us some change that we need in Washington."
But many others, even some who voted for Strange, said it made no difference. Susan Wimberly, a retiree, said she believed Moore was the “most honest” and that he would support the president’s agenda.
“He’ll stand up for what’s right, even if it’s against Trump,” she said.
The focus on Trump did help Strange steer away much of the air war from his appointment by then-Gov. Robert Bentley, the most significant weight around his neck. Neither Brooks nor Moore made much of the issue in their campaign, and most, though not all, Republican voters interviewed Tuesday said the appointment did not affect their vote.
Their counterpunching focused instead on McConnell, unpopular with most Republicans, and Congress’ failure to pass a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, a stated goal of most Republican officials. Brooks’ supporters said that affected their vote.
“We have a president, and both houses (of Congress) are Republican, and nothing’s getting done unless it’s a presidential mandate,” said Karen Wolfe, who works in veterinary office in Auburn. “I feel like (Brooks) will support our president and get things done that need to be done.”
The arguments about Trump, though, tended to push Alabama to the sidelines. All the Republican candidates supported Affordable Care Act repeal, but cuts to Medicaid in congressional bills — which would have hit Alabama’s health care sector hard – did not appear to stop them. The national tone extended even to candidates’ strategies: Strange tended to do interviews on national outlets — particularly Fox News — that were unlikely to challenge him.
The Democratic race, where the top three candidates combined raised $150,000 less for their campaigns than Strange did in July alone, was far more low-key. Jones won key endorsements from the Alabama Democratic Conference; U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell and former vice president Joe Biden, but polls indicated that Kennedy would have an advantage, due in part to sharing his name with a Democratic icon.
The candidates all stuck with mainstream Democratic viewpoints, supporting reproductive rights and the Affordable Care Act while criticizing Trump over immigration policies and the environment.
Democrats have not won a U.S. Senate election since 1992 and face a tough battle in the general election.
Follow Brian Lyman on Twitter: @lyman_brian