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Rating Change: Alabama Senate Race No Longer Solid GOP

Polarizing potential nominee could give Democrats a shot at takeover

Alabama Republican Roy Moore finished first in Tuesday’s special election GOP Senate primary. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Alabama Republican Roy Moore finished first in Tuesday’s special election GOP Senate primary. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Alabama Senate special election certainly isn’t a toss-up, but the possibility that former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore might become the Republican nominee creates the potential for a Democratic upset.

President Donald Trump’s polarizing persona is creating significant risk for congressional Republicans in next year’s midterm elections. But his decision to pluck Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions out of the Senate for his Cabinet created a special election this year that is turning out to be more adventurous than expected, considering Trump won the Yellowhammer State by 28 points less than a year ago.

Embattled Gov. Robert Bentley appointed state Attorney General Luther Strange to Sessions’ seat, but he finished second in Tuesday’s GOP primary to Moore, 40 percent to 32 percent with 93 percent of precincts reporting. Rep. Mo Brooks, who had backing of the Club for Growth, finished third with 20 percent.

Strange’s allies knew Moore was likely to finish first in the multi-candidate race because of his core base of culturally conservative voters, but they believe the former judge has a lower electoral ceiling, which would allow the appointed senator to win the Sept. 26 runoff.

[Could Trump Shake Up the Alabama Senate Race?]

Trump endorsed Strange, who also had support from the Mitch McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund and the backing of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. That coalition is likely to remain in place for the runoff. The fund began the race by taking on (and taking down) Brooks but will now focus on Moore.

Strange continues to carry the baggage of the Bentley appointment and the perception that it was improper, considering Strange’s office was investigating the governor. His struggles and Moore’s potential in a runoff shouldn’t be a surprise to Inside Elections readers.

“Moore won’t get a majority in the initial primary, but if he makes a runoff against Strange, enough anti-Bentley voters may decide to rid themselves of any of the former governor’s legacy and back the polarizing former justice,” we wrote in the May 5 issue. “‘A Luther vs. Moore runoff would be a disaster,’ according to one GOP source,” who was worried about Moore becoming the nominee.

[Alabama GOP Candidates Battle Over Who’s Most Conservative]

On the Democratic side, Doug Jones, the U.S. attorney who successfully prosecuted two suspects for the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed four young girls, secured the nomination without a runoff. Ahead of the primary, Jones received endorsements from Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Georgia Rep. John Lewis, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, and Rep. Rep. Terri A. Sewell, the lone Democrat in the Alabama delegation.

It’s undoubtedly a steep climb for Jones in the special general election. Former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter was the last Democratic presidential candidate to win Alabama, and that was in 1976 on his way to the White House. Republicans also control six out of the state’s seven House seats.

The last Democrat to win a U.S. Senate race was Richard C. Shelby, currently the state’s Republican senior senator, who won re-election in 1992 as a Democrat and switched parties two years later after Republicans won control of Congress.

Sessions was first elected in 1996, when Democratic Sen. Howell Heflin retired after three terms, and became the first Republican to hold that seat in over a century. But Sessions hadn’t had a serious re-election race in years.

[Sessions on the Cusp of Martyrdom or Oblivion]

Democrats can only win a Senate seat in Alabama under extraordinary circumstances, and facing Roy Moore, the twice-barred chief justice, might be one of those circumstances.

According to party strategists tracking the race, Jones needs approximately a third of the white vote in the general election to win. For a reference point, statewide Democratic candidates tend to receive 16 percent to 19 percent. Potentially doubling that will be difficult for Jones, and he’ll need a batch of Republicans who are simply turned off by Moore’s focus on social issues or are uncomfortable with him after the attacks from the runoff.

National Democratic operatives have not hyped the race. But if Moore wins the GOP nomination, Jones could become the latest cause celebre for grass-roots Democrats across the country. In spite of the electoral odds, Jones could become the next Jon Ossoff.

[Opinion: Jon Ossoff and the New Breed of Yellow Dog Democrats]

With Strange or Moore, Republicans will start the special general election with the advantage. They’ll couple Jones with Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and Elizabeth Warren, and that should be enough to sink him. Plus, despite Trump’s low approval numbers across the country, he remains popular in Alabama, which could help either Republican candidate.

But a Solid Republican rating understates the volatility of the race under the current, special circumstances. We’re changing the Inside Elections rating to a less-safe category: Likely Republican.

Leah Askarinam contributed to this report.

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