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The GOP Establishment Got What It Wanted (Sorta) In Alabama’s Senate Primary

It will be the Republican establishment versus the evangelical base in Alabama’s GOP Senate primary runoff on Sept. 26. That’s the story after former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore and appointed U.S. Sen. Luther Strange finished first (but short of a majority) and second, respectively, in Tuesday’s primary to compete for the seat vacated by now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Democrats, on the other hand, put themselves into the strongest position — one that is still nonetheless incredibly weak — to win the December general election by nominating former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones in their primary.

The main action on Tuesday night came on the Republican side, and it played out pretty much as expected. Moore, riding strong support from evangelical voters, won 39 percent of the vote to Strange’s 33 percent. Moore’s 6-percentage-point edge over Strange1 is right around the 7-point Moore lead that polls predicted. U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, meanwhile, finished third with nearly 20 percent of the vote — again, as the polls had suggested he would.

There was some concern among Republicans that Strange, despite currently occupying the Senate seat that is being competed for, wouldn’t make the runoff. But he was able to maintain his advantage over Brooks in large part because of the backing of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell; the pro-McConnell Senate Leadership Fund spent heavily on attack ads against Brooks during the campaign. Strange also got a last-minute endorsement from President Trump.

The question going into the runoff is whether McConnell’s and Trump’s backing will be enough to get Strange past Moore. The limited runoff polling that has been released so far shows Moore and Strange finishing first and second — just like they finished in the first round. And McConnell is a polarizing figure among Republicans. But Strange will have more time to trumpet his Trump endorsement, and the president could visit Alabama, where he is incredibly popular among Republicans. Still, that Moore won comfortably on Tuesday demonstrates that Trump’s pull may only mean so much and a lot of Republican primary voters are still looking for an outsider candidate.

Two other questions: Where will Brooks’s voters go in the runoff? Will they shun Strange because of the negative ads that were run against Brooks on Strange’s behalf? Some might, but Moore is sure to be on the receiving end of a lot of those negative ads over the next month.

On the Democratic side, despite trailing in some polls, Jones easily beat Robert Kennedy Jr. (66 percent to 18 percent). Jones is perhaps best known for prosecuting the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing defendants. There was some thought that Kennedy, who is not related to the famous political clan of the same name, might be able to win on name recognition. But as I previously noted, many voters probably weren’t tuning in to the race until late. Additionally, pollsters who found Kennedy leading may have been surveying too wide a swath of the population and not accurately capturing the more politically clued-in voters who eventually turned out.

Democrats are hoping that Moore wins the Republican runoff, thinking it would give Jones a shot in December. That may be true. Moore is a hard-core conservative. He also got kicked off the Alabama Supreme Court in 2003 and suspended from it this past year for failing to follow a higher court’s order.

Remember, though — Alabama has a deeply conservative, deeply religious electorate. This is a state that Trump won by 28 percentage points in 2016 and where a Democrat hasn’t been elected to the U.S. Senate since 1992. Even if Moore wins the Republican nomination, he will be heavily favored in December. Strange would be an even bigger favorite in the general. A Democratic win is a long shot either way.

Footnotes

  1. 6.1 points before rounding.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

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