MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore Tuesday won the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate Tuesday night, overcoming an incumbent with the strong backing of President Trump and a major fundraising advantage.
Republicans had tried to turn the runoff for the GOP Senate nomination into a referendum on Donald Trump, but GOP voters Tuesday said Trump — and his endorsement of Sen. Luther Strange — were small factors in their choices.
Shortly after 9:30 p.m. ET, the Associated Press called the race for Moore. With 86% of the vote counted Tuesday night, Moore led Strange 56% to 44%.
Moore’s victory highlighted the strength of his base of voters in the Alabama Republican Party; the lingering questions about Strange’s appointment by former Gov. Robert Bentley and the limits of Trump’s ability to influence elections.
“I make my own decisions,” said Jim Barber, a retired construction engineer who lives in Auburn and who voted for Moore. “I was and still am a strong supporter of Donald Trump, but I differ with him on this thing.”
Even supporters of Strange — who tried to run an entire campaign on his support for Trump — said the president's backing was at best secondary. Gloria Lynn, a retired teacher who lives in Auburn, liked the Trump endorsement and said she believed Strange was the “best man for the job.” But Lynn said her vote for Strange was “more or less because I was against Moore.”
“He put the Ten Commandments (in the Alabama Supreme Court building) and someone told him not to do it and he did it anyway,” she said. “He’s against gay marriage, and you know, that’s something that’s their business, not his business.”
Voters in Auburn, Montgomery, Prattville and Pike Road cited other factors in their choice, ranging from their view of each candidate’s competence or character; state issues or general displeasure with Congress.
“I feel something for both of them, but I feel like Strange might be better at working with the people up there and getting something done,” said Jesse Russell, who voted in Pike Road.
The battle became a proxy war between national Republican factions both seeking Trump’s blessing but fighting over GOP congressional leadership’s ability to carry that out. Strange won Trump’s backing in early August, and the president tweeted several messages of support and — in the primary — recorded robocalls for the incumbent. Trump also appeared at a rally on behalf of Strange in Huntsville Friday and continued to promote his candidacy through Monday. Vice President Mike Pence appeared with Strange at a rally in Birmingham Monday.
Strange, a former Alabama attorney general, tried to make the race a referendum on Trump — still popular with Alabama Republicans — suggesting that his support from Trump meant Moore did not support the president.
But polls before the primary and the runoff showed the appearances having little effect on voters. Moore, with a loyal base, stuck to his traditional social conservative message, but also promised to carry out the Trump agenda and to oppose Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., whose Senate Leadership Fund spent millions on ads attacking Moore.
Bill Armistead, a former Alabama Republican Party chairman and Moore’s campaign chairman, said people in Alabama “know Roy Moore.”
“It’s very difficult to transfer one’s popularity to another candidate,” Armistead said. “Trump is very popular in Alabama, but you can’t say ‘because he’s popular, whoever he likes will be popular too.’ It just doesn’t work that way.”
Tuesday night, it didn't take long after the election result was clear for the president to switch his support to Moore via Twitter.
Whoever they supported, voters Tuesday mostly said that the Trump endorsement had little to no effect on their decision.
“It was a little disappointing,” said Jennifer Hunt, a graphic designer from Auburn who voted for Moore. “(But) it didn’t affect my decision.”
Moore got the support of other conservative groups opposed to McConnell, who some activists on the right blame for the failure of the repeal of the Affordable Care Act over the summer. Former Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin appeared at a rally for Moore Thursday, and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon — whose Breitbart website relentlessly attacked Strange in the leadup to the runoff — appeared at a rally for Moore Monday.
Strange also struggled with questions about his appointment by Bentley. Bentley resigned from office in April after pleading guilty to two campaign finance violations, following an investigation by the Alabama attorney general’s office. Strange interviewed for and accepted the Senate appointment while the investigation took place. He never said what role if any he had in the probe, and avoided questions about it on Thursday night.
Voters who spoke with the Advertiser Thursday tended to bring up the Bentley appointment more than the Trump endorsement.
Moore faces former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, the Democratic nominee for the seat, in the general election Dec. 12.
Turnout had been expected to be low. Secretary of State John Merrill said Tuesday afternoon he saw “no reason” to revise an earlier prediction of a 12% turnout for the runoff. If that bears out, it would be below the already-low 18% turnout in the Aug. 15 primary.
Contributing: Marty Roney and Andrew J. Yawn, Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser. Follow Brian Lyman on Twitter: @lyman_brian