MOBILE, AL — A twice-evicted state Supreme Court Justice, an incumbent U.S. Senator appointed in a decidedly Strange fashion, and perhaps a famously wealthy Yella Fella: This is just a partial cast of characters who will play roles in Alabama's special election this year to fill the remainder of a U.S. Senate term.
With next week's expected entry into the Senate race of the controversial "Ten Commandments Judge," Roy Moore, Alabama will be assured of a campaign the national media will cover by dusting off every anti-Southern shibboleth at its disposal. But this race will have more in common with my native Louisiana's scandalously entertaining 20th Century races (see: Huey and Earl Long and Edwin Edwards) than with Alabama's tradition of predictable, old-style, Deep South demagoguery fests.
As has been amply reported in these pages, current senator Luther Strange was appointed just two months ago to fill the seat vacated when fourth-term senator Jeff Sessions became U.S. Attorney General. Strange had been the state's attorney general; had asked state legislators to put on hold an impeachment investigation into actions of then-Gov. Robert Bentley because their inquiry supposedly interfered with one of his own; had then said he wasn't necessarily investigating Bentley; had then accepted the U.S. Senate appointment from Bentley – and then watched, safe in Washington, as the re-started legislative investigation unearthed such copious details of Bentley's misdeeds that Bentley resigned.
The stench of a possible wink-and-nod quid pro quo between Bentley and Strange was only increased when people wondered why the Legislature was so quickly able to make the case against Bentley that Strange's office had spent months failing to demonstrate.
Enter Moore – well known for putting a 5,280-pound Ten Commandments monument at the state's high-court building, refusing a federal court order to remove it, and being ousted from office in 2003 for ethics violations related to his defiance. Elected again as Chief Justice in a 2010 comeback, Moore was again effectively removed from office (albeit this time officially "suspended" for the rest of his term rather than formally evicted) last September for advising state probate judges not to abide by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling ordering recognition of same-sex marriages.
Now 70 years old, Moore's two ethics-related removals have made him not a pariah but a statewide folk hero for taking "godly" stances against supposedly benighted federal courts.
Then there is the state's richest man, Jimmy Rane, familiar from multiple, locally iconic advertisements as head of the "Yella Wood" international corporation still headquartered in tiny Abbeville, Ala. Rane was a close ally of former state Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, convicted on 12 counts involving his mixing of personal business dealings with legislative action. Hubbard's conviction was secured by Strange's AG office (although Strange personally recused himself from the case), in a trial at which Rane was forced to testify.
Multiple sources say Rane is furious at Strange (for the Hubbard trial and for the Strange dealings related to Bentley) and that Rane plans either to finance a candidate to take Strange down, or even to run himself. As a local advertising superstar, a hugely successful businessman and a noted philanthropist, Rane could be a formidable contender.
Another potential self-financer is wealthy state Senate President Del Marsh, who told the Washington Examiner's Philip Wegmann that he is "leaning toward running." In a state whose Republican voters lean heavily Evangelical, Marsh would need to overcome the hurdle of having flip-flopped in 2015 to become the Legislature's primary proponent of legalizing widespread gambling. Marsh also has repeatedly quashed efforts by conservatives to officially repeal Alabama's use of national Common Core educational standards – so he surely would bear the campaign's dreaded label of "moderate" or even "liberal" Republican.
And those are just four out of a dozen or more potential candidates. Because this is an off-year special election, any incumbent officeholders – including any of the state's seven U.S. House members, six of them Republican – could run for the Senate without giving up their own seats. It's a free shot – or at least free for everybody except the campaign donors, and the taxpayers footing the $15 million election bill.
Somehow, somebody will surely try to emerge as a white night amidst the tawdriness and the faux-reality-show images. It would be nice if Alabamans decide we're tired of providing easy fodder for caricature. It certainly would be nice if voters would concentrate on who can actually do some responsible conservative legislating. Stop worrying about "sending a message" to Washington. Send a statesman instead.
Quin Hillyer (@QuinHillyer) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He lives in Mobile and has covered Alabama politics since 1998.
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