MOBILE, Ala. – When last we visited the Alabama special election for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, it already was looking like a strange one. But with just 11 days to go before the Aug. 15 Republican primary, the campaign has turned into a nearly-Kafkaesque parade of horribles.
Much of what makes it horrible is emanating from the orbit of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose heavy-handed intervention is unwelcome among broad swaths of party activists here.
Alabama is a state so heavily Republican that most observers think the GOP nomination will be tantamount to eventual victory. (Democrats, though, have recruited a respected candidate in former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones). Of nine Republican candidates, four are thought to have a chance at qualifying for one of the two spots in the expected party runoff.
The incumbent, Sen. Luther Strange, was appointed to the post earlier this year by then-Gov. Robert Bentley, at the same time Strange's Alabama attorney general office was investigating Bentley for various misdeeds that eventually forced Bentley's ouster. (A state legislative impeachment inquiry produced a report far more damning to Bentley than the charges eventually brought by the attorney general's office after Strange was ensconced in Washington.)
Most polls have Strange in a three-way race, with twice-evicted state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore and hardline U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks as his main sparring partners. State Sen. Trip Pittman, a top committee chairman known for fiscally-conservative oversight of state budgets, has lagged behind but is trying to mobilize a late surge.
Strange has been hampered seriously by the stench of his seeming connection with Bentley, but the former lobbyist has played his longstanding ties to Washington insiders for all they're worth. In addition to raising some $2 million in official campaign money (a lot by Alabama standards) Strange benefited from the National Republican Senatorial Committee trying to clear the field by threatening major reprisals against any challengers. And from a reported $8 million, an astonishing amount, being spent on his behalf by McConnell's super PAC.
Strange's "positive" ads have been almost a self-parody of paeans to guns, Donald Trump, God, and Trump again. But the vast bulk of Strange-connected money in the past month has flooded the airwaves with attacks on Brooks for anti-Trump statements Brooks made while supporting Ted Cruz in last year's GOP primaries. Those ads oddly continued even as Trump unmercifully heckled Alabama hero Jeff Sessions – which had the effect of reminding Alabamans why Brooks and others rightly find Trump at times to be eminently objectionable.
Brooks has responded with a series of brazen pander-blasts of his own. First Brooks said that if a spending bill reached the Senate floor without full funding for Trump's Mexico-border wall, he would filibuster the bill until he dropped – while reading aloud from the King James Bible. Then, amid reported poll slippage, Brooks ran an ad containing footage of him firmly asserting gun rights in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, which Brooks witnessed, of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise. So crass was the impression of Brooks trying to capitalize on tragedy that several of Scalise's staffers openly expressed disgust.
Moore, meanwhile, is a folk hero among a broad swath of Christian conservatives not despite, but because of, his two ethics-related evictions from the job of chief justice. (Promoting the Ten Commandments and fighting state recognition of homosexual marriages will make a judge an appealing martyr down here.) Even his constitutionally absurd assertion that Muslims enjoy no First Amendment rights helps him politically more than it hurts.
Moore is seen as almost a shoo-in for one runoff spot no matter what else happens, so he escaped serious attack from the others – until last Tuesday.
Then, for tactical reasons beyond the ken of most local observers, McConnell's PAC began blasting away at Moore, too, in effect accusing him of improperly enriching himself through a Christian legal foundation he and his wife have operated.
The bullying overkill by McConnell's insiders puts in stark relief the idiocy and obnoxiousness of party committees and leadership PACs intervening in party primaries. Millions of dollars that could be spent opposing Democrats is instead wasted in trashing other Republicans – not only to little avail at times, but even to the point of catalyzing a brutal backlash.
Strange may suffer from that backlash. With his Bentley association an anvil tied to one ankle and the McConnell association an anchor on the other, he may miss the runoff altogether.
Quin Hillyer (@QuinHillyer) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a former associate editorial page editor for the Washington Examiner.
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