With less than 10 weeks of Capitol Hill experience under his belt, Republican Sen. Luther Strange of Alabama suddenly faces a special-election primary in just four months and with far more serious vulnerabilities.
Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday moved up the special election for the seat from 2018 to 2017. The decision came a week after former Gov. Robert Bentley resigned amid a scandal involving an alleged affair, and the messy exit is renewing concerns about Strange’s Senate appointment. Strange, the former attorney general, was investigating Bentley before Bentley chose him to replace former Sen. Jeff Sessions.
Alabama Republicans predicted that the earlier election timeline would result in a crowded, free-for-all primary that would leave Strange significantly more at risk.
“The momentum of the Bentley fallout is heading straight for him,” Alabama Republican strategist Jonathan Gray said. “There are people out there that want to see a target.”
One Republican, state Rep. Ed Henry, has already declared a campaign, as a trio of state senators—Del Marsh, Trip Pittman, and Slade Blackwell —publicly mull bids. Suspended Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore said Wednesday he will reveal his plans next week.
Alabama Republicans floated a handful of other candidates who could jump in, including wealthy businessman Jimmy Rane and former state Rep. Perry Hooper Jr. State legislators and congressional incumbents would not have to give up their seats to run, a dynamic that likely grows the field.
“Everyone and their brother who’s ever wanted to be in the United States Senate would jump in,” former Alabama GOP Chairman Bill Armistead said a day before the election was changed. “Most people think there’s a cloud over that appointment.”
Bentley critics have charged that the governor installed Strange in the Senate to sideline him from pursuing an investigation that could have led to impeachment. Last week, Bentley stepped down from his post after more than a year of battling allegations that he used public resources to pursue an affair with a former top aide. Bentley pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges related to campaign finance violations.
Reached for comment Tuesday, the Strange campaign referred National Journal to comments the senator made to Alabama reporters about the criticism reflecting “politics at its worst.” As Alabama attorney general, Strange prosecuted former state House Speaker Mike Hubbard, whose allies, Alabama Republicans privately say, are eager to field a Strange challenger.
“The things that are being reported are coming from a disgruntled group of people who are mad at our office for doing our job,” Strange told reporters last week.
Ivey’s decision Tuesday set the primary for Aug. 15 and the runoff, which occurs if no candidate receives a majority of the vote, for Sept. 26. The general election is scheduled for Dec. 12.
Given that Strange was appointed, rather than elected, Alabama Republicans said he was likely to face a primary even if the election took place in 2018. But with Strange losing a year’s worth of an incumbency advantage—and with the Bentley-scandal fallout—they said the senator is now on much shakier ground.
A handful of Republicans interviewed said that the well-known Moore, who was suspended in September for ordering probate judges to defy federal orders regarding same-sex marriage, could be the most formidable threat to Strange, particularly if the two candidates are forced into a runoff.
“The whole problem with Luther is people are suggesting there’s a moral corruption in his appointment, and you’re going to have a moral guy run,” Gray said. “That’s a huge exposure for Luther.”
Other Republicans were skeptical that there would be enough money for anyone in a large GOP field to mount a serious challenge, though GOP strategists noted that Marsh and Rane can both heavily self-fund.
They’ll need the cash. Strange already sits on a war chest of $764,000, and as the incumbent he receives backing from the GOP establishment, including the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
“The NRSC is always focused on our strong Republican majority, and Senator Luther Strange has our full support,” said NRSC communications director Katie Martin.
That also includes backing from Alabama’s senior senator, Richard Shelby, and the super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Senate Leadership Fund vowed in a statement Tuesday to protect Strange, and another McConnell-linked group, One Nation, began airing a radio ad earlier this month that praises Strange for working with President Trump and Attorney General Sessions on a conservative agenda.
Some Alabama Republicans were hesitant to predict how much Bentley’s resignation would factor into Strange’s reelection. Still, they said, Strange, a former Washington lobbyist, remains well-connected, even as he weathers the optics of his situation.
“The picture being painted of how he got his appointment … is ugly,” Alabama Republican strategist Chris Brown said. “But Luther Strange has always been an above-board guy who’s prosecuted corruption.”
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