Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to keep former Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange in the seat that Jeff Sessions vacated to run the Department of Justice for Donald Trump. But that’s turning out to be harder than he may have anticipated, because now he’s turning his own political operation against the top two Republican primary challengers to Strange.
Former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore and Rep. Mo Brooks have been running in open rebellion against McConnell. Moore has vowed he will be “impossible to manage” as a senator, while Brooks described McConnell last week as “the head of the swamp in the United States Senate” and called for his ouster over the failed repeal of Obamacare.
As state Auditor Jim Zeigler told Brandon Moseley at Alabama Political Reporter yesterday, the strategy to keep “Temporary Sen. Luther Strange” in his seat involves “millions of dollars in ads paid for by Washington Insiders to sway ‘low-information voters.’”
While there has been little polling in the state, an internal survey by the Moore campaign in June found their candidate leading Strange, with Brooks a close third. When McConnell and the National Republican Senate Committee realized that they faced the prospect of their anointed “incumbent” being knocked out of a potential runoff, outside Republican money began hammering Brooks with negative ads during July that portrayed him as an opponent of Donald Trump.
An independent poll released last week showed these efforts were having an effect, propelling Strange over both of his rivals. But POLITICO says that McConnell is not taking any chances. Instead, he’s “unleashing the full force of his political machine” to the tune of $8 million and asking the White House to chip in.
Senate Leadership Fund has spent $3.5 million on the race, by far the largest expenditure of any outside group. Yet that figure is expected to grow significantly, especially if no candidate receives a majority of the vote in the Aug. 15 primary and the contest is forced into a September runoff, as is widely expected. The group has pledged to drop $6 million to $8 million.
“While he doesn’t direct what we do, McConnell has made it very clear that Luther’s race is his No. 1 political priority right now,” said Steven Law, Senate Leadership Fund’s president and a former chief of staff to the Republican leader.
Just to drive his point home, McConnell is setting up a primary challenger for Brooks in Alabama’s 5th congressional district next year. Ward Baker, a longtime McConnell hand who runs the NRSC, is advising a young Iraq War veteran named Clayton Hinchman to denounce Brooks for disloyalty to Donald Trump.
Those tactics have a strong potential to backfire, however. “Alabama voters are starting to develop a strong dislike for Mitch McConnell and the establishment machine that thinks they have a right to dictate to the people of Alabama whether a person can qualify as a candidate and who voters would vote for,” Brooks tells POLITICO. And he’s not entirely wrong, for the average grassroots Republican in the Heart of Dixie reserves some measure of their anti-Washington, anti-establishment vitriol for Mitch McConnell and his ilk these days.
“I personally am kind of looking for someone who’s not your typical Montgomery, D.C. politician,” a supporter of Roy Moore told NPR this weekend. The Alabama Republican Assembly, a grassroots conservative group, voted to endorse Roy Moore last week.
Indeed, it’s hard to see how Hinchman can challenge Brooks, a Tea Party icon that is beloved by conservative voters and talk radio hosts across north Alabama. It’s not like he can run to Brooks’s right or claim to be the “outsider.”
But all the noise has certainly succeeded in distracting Alabama’s Republican voters from the embarrassing fact that Strange was appointed by Gov. Robert Bentley, whom he was supposed to be investigating. State political observers had expected Strange to pay some price for receiving such a plum from Bentley, who left the governor’s mansion in disgrace as soon as Strange was no longer in charge of the investigation.
Nevertheless, McConnell and the NRSC are betting that Trump voters — the kind of people who would still vote for this president even if he shot somebody on 5th Avenue — will overlook the still-unexplained conflict of interest and vote for Strange if they see him as Trump’s man. That theory makes a disturbing amount of sense.
Brooks, on the other hand, is betting that Jeff Sessions is at least as popular with Alabama’s primary electorate as Trump. He got attention last week for defending Sessions against Trump’s attacks, saying that all nine Republican candidates should step aside to let the US Attorney General have his Senate seat back.
McConnell is reportedly asking Trump to endorse Strange, who has visited with the president. However, the White House has declined to take part in the intra-party fight.
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