Voters ousted U.S. Sen. Luther Strange in a Republican runoff vote Tuesday, but the real battle for Senate may just be starting.
Voters on Dec. 12 will choose between Republican firebrand and former Judge Roy Moore and Democrat Doug Jones in the general election to decide who will complete the term begun by former Sen. Jeff Sessions, who left the office to become U.S. attorney general.
The race could be an all-out culture war between the religious right and liberals who see Moore as a homegrown ayatollah. Or it could be a typical Alabama general election beatdown, with Democrats defeated before they start. It could be both.
Here are a five developments to look for in the weeks ahead.
Is the race already over?
In most election years, it would be.
Democrats haven’t won a Senate race here in a quarter of a century. In recent years, they haven’t even fielded viable opposition. (Quick: name two Democratic Senate candidates in Alabama from this century. See?)
Democrats are more hopeful this year because Jones, a former federal prosecutor, seems like a serious candidate. He’s already well-known in political circles, and his successful prosecution of infamous Ku Klux Klan bombers gives him a claim to fame that could impress voters.
“Democratic voters finally have a decent candidate, and not just somebody who’s willing to put up the qualifying fee,” said William Stewart, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Alabama.
Poll numbers gave Democrats some hope during the Republican runoff, with one poll showing Republicans almost evenly split between Jones and the Republican nominee if their candidate failed to win the runoff. But that window seems to be closing: the latest Emerson College poll, released Monday, shows Moore ahead of Jones by 22 points.
Do Democrats, at the national level, even want to fight Moore?
National news outlets have feasted on Roy Moore’s history in the past week, pointing out statements about church-state separation, gay rights and Islamic law that horrify many Democrats.
If Moore wins, he’ll have nearly a year on the national stage, shocking the liberal conscience, before the 2018 midterms. Could he become a recruiting tool for Democrats, a cautionary tale to drive turnout in swing states? Would Democrats prefer to save their campaign money and let Alabama elect a senator who electrifies the liberal base?
“I think the DNC will keep their powder dry in this special Senate race and see what the landscape looks like in 2018,” wrote Lori Owens, a Jacksonville State University political science professor, in an email to The Star.
Do national Republicans want to fight for Moore?
In the runoff, Moore ran against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, (R-Kentucky) as much as he did against Strange, depicting both Strange and McConnell as creatures of the D.C. “swamp” of political corruption. He also won against the wishes of President Donald Trump, who spent part of Tuesday deleting his past tweets supporting Strange’s failed candidacy.
A skeptic of foreign military intervention and a critic of Republicans’ failures to build a wall and repeal Obamacare, Moore could prove difficult to caucus with.
Still, Trump has already come around to endorse Moore. McConnell, too, has urged Strange’s supporters to “redouble their efforts” to elect Moore in the general election. Even so, the McConnell-influenced Senate Leadership Fund still had ananti-Moore website up as of Wednesday.
When does the money show up?
Moore spent only $1 million to Strange’s $4 million, but it’s likely at least some of Strange’s donors will gravitate to Moore.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see Moore getting some of that money now,” Stewart said.
Stewart is less confident that Jones will see an infusion from out-of-state Democrats to boost the $287,000 he’s raised so far.
Will it be a battle of the celebrity endorsements?
The GOP runoff brought celebrities into Alabama politics. Trump held a rally for Strange. Moore touted endorsements from Sarah Palin, Chuck Norris and Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty.
Jones plans to take the stage with former Vice President Joe Biden in Birmingham next week, a rare celebrity nod for an Alabama Democrat. Moore’s nomination seems to have inspired some well-known satirists and comedians. (Writer Garrison Keillor, for instance,joked in a Washington Post editorial that there will be “no more waiting for tee times” after Moore brings back stoning for minor violations of Biblical rules).
It’s possible that more celebrities on both sides will weigh in as Dec. 12 approaches, but Stewart thinks it’s unlikely we’ll see many more famous names in-state, on the campaign trail.
“I think we’ve seen the biggest celebrities we’re going to see,” he said.