HOMEWOOD, Ala. — Sen. Luther Strange on Monday raised the stakes in this closely watched special election for an Alabama Senate seat, framing his contest with Roy Moore as a pivotal moment for the Republican Party ahead of 2018.
"There are a lot of people that think my opponent would be a Todd Akin, an anchor around the neck of the party for the next couple years. I have to say, knowing him, that's probably a valid concern — it really is," Strange said in an interview with the Washington Examiner.
Akin was the Republican nominee for Senate in Missouri in 2012.
The then-congressman's provocative remarks about rape and abortion caused political problems for Republicans across the country in that election and propelled vulnerable Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., to victory. Republicans in Washington are petrified that Moore, amplified by the U.S. Senate, would cause similar problems for GOP candidates in 2018.
Moore was removed as Alabama Supreme Court chief justice for refusing to recognize and enforce the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. He has built his Senate campaign around his uncompromising social conservatism, saying in the past that homosexuality should be illegal, among other things.
Moore, who told the Washington Examiner on Sunday that he plans to bring "knowledge of God" to Capitol Hill if he wins Tuesday, has led Strange substantially in most public opinion polls, although some private surveys show a close contest fueled by President Trump's endorsement of the incumbent.
Strange unloaded on Moore over breakfast Monday morning at Salem's Diner, the suburban Birmingham restaurant where he films most of his campaign ads that also is just a few blocks from where he lives now and half a mile from where he grew up. The soft-spoken senator did so in the razor-sharp terms he largely avoided until now, frustrating some GOP insiders who wanted him to be more aggressive.
"You look at my opponent's record on the Alabama Supreme Court, he's really got a Democrat record. He's got the liberal record in terms of rule of law," Strange said. "It's really ironic that some conservatives are siding with my opponent, who really has no conservative accomplishments. What has he actually done for the conservative movement?"
Strange said it's hard to pinpoint how he ended up in the crosshairs of conservative rebels who usually side with Trump, like Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist who runs Breitbart News. Bannon and other populist luminaries are headlining a rally for Moore on Monday evening in Mobile; Strange is to appear with Vice President Mike Pence at the same time in Birmingham.
The senator, appointed to the job in January when popular Republican Jeff Sessions resigned to become U.S. attorney general, won his previous post as Alabama attorney general after challenging a sitting Republican in a primary in 2010 for being insufficiently conservative. He used the perch to sue President Barack Obama — several times.
Strange conceded that the strong support he has received from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has played role in his underdog status given the anti-establishment fervor this is so palpable among Alabama Republicans. Moore has used Strange's connections to McConnell as a wedge to drum up votes.
Strange also credited some of his difficulties with the Senate's failure to pass an Obamacare repeal bill. The first bill failed over the summer, the second attempt to replace the Affordable Care Act was on life support with a Sept. 30 deadline looming, and Strange admitted that it wasn't helpful despite his strong support for a package that is a major priority of the president's.
"I think it all turns on anger and frustration at the Republican Party's failure to deliver their promises. If you look at any issue that brought that home it was [John] McCain's sinking of the healthcare bill," Strange said, referring to the Arizona Republican senator's vote against the GOP repeal bill in early August. McCain also came out against the Graham-Cassidy legislation to overhaul Obamacare last week. "The anger level was through the roof at that point and it's probably been the single biggest issue of this campaign."
McConnell linked groups have poured millions of dollars into this race to boost Strange, worried that a Moore victory could motivate a wave of well-resourced Senate primaries next year against Republican incumbents.
That has upset many grassroots conservatives. Yet some Republicans who plan to vote for Strange on Tuesday say the senator's real Achilles heel has been the controversy surrounding his Senate appointment by then-Gov. Robert Bentley, a Republican.
Strange had already announced his campaign to run in a special election on the assumption that Trump would tap Session for his administration. But at the time of the appointment, his team in the attorney general's office was investigating Bentley for improprieties, and he was eventually forced to resign.
That led to accusations that Strange made a corrupt bargain with Bentley to accept the appointment in exchange for backing off his investigation, even though it continued unabated under Strange's successor (also appointed by Bentley) after he was sworn in as a senator.
Wayne Salem, the owner of Salem's diner and Strange's childhood friend, said he believes the senator would have garnered 50 percent in round one of the GOP primary on Aug. 15 (he finished second to Moore) had he run in the special election as a challenger.
"When Bentley offered him that, if he would have turned it down, then we wouldn't be going through this runoff," Salem said. "He just can't get that smell of Bentley off of him."