Strange Likely to Face Crowded Primary

Republicans say a new special-election date leaves Sen. Luther Strange of Alabama far more vulnerable.

Sen. Luther Strange
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Kimberly Railey
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Kimberly Railey
April 19, 2017, 3:34 p.m.

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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