Updated at 11 p.m. ET
Conservative firebrand Roy Moore rolled to an easy win in the Alabama GOP Senate primary runoff, defeating appointed Sen. Luther Strange, the preferred candidate of both President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Tuesday night, both Trump and McConnell pledged their support for Moore going forward.
Still, the win by the controversial former state supreme court chief justice, who was twice removed from the bench, is a victory for the Republican Party’s anti-establishment wing. Supporters demonstrated that they can help mastermind a win even when the man they helped get to the White House wasn’t on their side.
And it’s a rebuke for Trump, who threw his political capital behind Strange — to no avail — in a state where he remains very popular. The president tweeted out his support for Moore shortly after the race was called.
Perhaps more consequentially, Moore’s win is a blow to McConnell, whose allied superPAC, the Senate Leadership Fund, spent upwards of $9 million to boost Strange. That loss could now embolden other insurgent primary challengers ahead of the 2018 midterms, potentially threatening the GOP Senate majority.
Moore framed his win as a blow to the establishment.
Nonetheless, McConnell put out a statement shortly after the results saying that Moore “ran a spirited campaign centered around a dissatisfaction with the progress made in Washington. I share that frustration and believe that enacting the agenda the American people voted for last November requires us all to work together. We look forward to Judge Moore’s help enacting that agenda when he arrives.”
Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who was a major booster for Moore, championed the race as one of the first in his war to take on the establishment since he left the White House.
Bannon held a rally for Moore on Monday evening, where he argued that he and others were backing Moore so that they could send the president an ally, while also sending another political shockwave through the nation like voters did last November.
“You’re going to get an opportunity to tell them what you think of the elites that run the country,” Bannon said. “Remember, these are the same people that have tried to destroy Donald J. Trump from the first day he announced for office.”
“They think you’re a pack of morons,” Bannon continued, belittling McConnell and other GOP leaders. “They think you’re nothing but rubes.”
Trump went to Huntsville the previous Friday, where he pitched Strange as the most electable general election candidate.
“If [Luther] wins, that race is over,” Trump said. “If somebody else wins, I will tell you, that’s gonna be a very tough race.”
But Trump also alluded to the fact that many of his own supporters beyond just Bannon were with Moore, including 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, former White House national security aide Sebastian Gorka, Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity, conservative radio host Laura Ingraham and others.
At one point, the president even admitted, “I might have made a mistake,” and said that if Moore won, “I’m going to be here campaigning like hell for him” in the general election.
The Senate Leadership Fund put out a statement before the AP had called the race, conceding that Moore had “won this nomination fair and square” and that he would have the superPAC’s support going forward.
Another backer of Strange, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Cory Gardner, R-Colo., said in a statement Tuesdsay night, “Our focus is always on keeping a strong Republican majority in the Senate, and that includes Alabama. Roy Moore will be imperative to passing a conservative agenda, and we support him in keeping this seat in Republican hands.”
Moore prevailed despite being heavily outspent by Strange and his allies, but the newly minted GOP nominee has a long history in the state that endeared him to religious conservatives. In his victory speech on Tuesday night, Moore told his supporters, “We have to return the knowledge of God and the Constitution of the United states to the United States Congress,” according to the Associated Press.
After being elected to the state supreme court in 2000, Moore was removed just three years later for erecting a massive monuments of the Ten Commandments outside the state judicial building and refusing to remove it when ordered to do so by the federal courts.
Moore was re-elected to the state court in 2012, but was suspended again after he directed judges in the state to ignore the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision that legalized gay marriage.
Moore also hammered Strange for the circumstances under which he was appointed to the seat to succeed now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Strange was the state attorney general investigating then-Gov. Robert Bentley for allegedly misusing his office to cover up an extramarital affair with an aide. After appointing Strange, Bentley eventually resigned and took a plea deal.
Those events cast a pall over Strange’s appointment and raised questions about whether there was a quid pro quo, and the senator struggled to answer the allegations. State GOP observers said that hurt Strange badly even with voters who may have been more inclined to vote for him — and his association with McConnell and other GOP establishment leaders didn’t help either, even if he had Trump’s blessing.
Moore will now face off against Democratic nominee Doug Jones in November, and with Moore’s victory the race could be newly competitive. Democrats are sure to highlight Moore’s anti-gay marriage stances, including past comments that homosexuality should be criminalized, and the fact that he’s fed into the “birtherism” movement that falsely claims that former President Barack Obama was not born in the U.S.
Jones is a former U.S. attorney who successfully prosecuted those responsible for the 1963 Birmingham church bombing. Democrats hope that he could woo some moderate Republicans and independents who can’t stomach Moore’s extreme-right views to his side, but given the conservative nature of the state, Moore still remains the favorite.