Tod’s piece on Roy Moore is good, and I mostly agree with it. The phenomenon that gave us Trump exists without Trump, and would exist if he had never run. For many supporters, the extreme rhetoric on minorities, women, and so on is a “because of” rather than “in spite of” when it comes to securing Republican votes. Roy Moore’s defining characteristic is his offensiveness, and that he won is significant.
What I do believe is missing from Tod’s post, however, is some important context. From the post alone, one might get the impression that Roy Moore just strode into the race and destroyed all comers. Perhaps with an air of inevitability. A popular bigot in a bigoted state, embraced by the bigoted party. None of these is entirely wrong, but the story gets more complicated as you peer in to the state’s politics and the rise, fall, and return of Roy Moore.
The first important thing about the 2017 senate race is that it’s misleading not to talk about the unique vulnerabilities Strange had apart from being the “establishment” candidate. As Tod mentions, he was appointed by former Governor Dr Robert Bentley (he legally changed his name to include “Dr”). Shortly after making the appointment, Bentley resigned in disgrace with sordid tales of wrecking his marriage and spending state money propping up an affair with an aide. Further complicating things, the guy whose job it was to investigate Bentley was… Luther Strange.
This was, almost to the letter, a plotline in the TV show Law & Order. On the show, the Governor Donald Shalvoy (played by Thomas Everett Scott) was being investigated by Jack McCoy for corruption. In order to complicate the investigation, Shalvoy floated McCoy’s name for an open senate seat. On the show, he was trying to discredit McCoy and his investigation. In Alabama, Strange was discredited by accepting an appointment from the governor he was supposed to be investigating. It probably doesn’t surprise you to hear that in the course of the campaign, it came up. It will further surprise you to hear that it did not help Strange’s campaign.
As Troy University political science professor Steven Taylor put it:
Strange’s problems are not so much because of a clear ideological fight within the GOP that has national implications, it is because he was appointed by Governor Bentley, whom many think Strange should have been more zealously investigating as the then Attorney General of Alabama. There was more than a whiff of quid pro quo at the time of appointment, including an initial decision to not have a special election, but to let the term play out. Bentley later plead to some minor crimes and resigned to avoid more serious prosecution. These are the things that damaged Strange within Alabama politics.
That brings us to the other factor. The person who hammered Strange most during the campaign wasn’t Roy Moore but Mo Brooks, the third Republican in the race. Remember during the presidential campaign when all of the Republicans were pummeling one another in order to create a one-on-one race with Trump? That show went on syndication in the Yellowhammer State. Brooks and Strange spent most of the primary running against one another and running negative. The watchers of the race in Alabama who were confident that Moore would lose in the end started losing their faith as they watched that unfold. It eventually became obvious that Strange would beat Brooks, Brooks would endorse Moore, and it was likely Strange would not be able to get the consolidation that he needed to win.
None of this matters if Moore was popular enough with Republicans to beat all-comers. Counterfactuals are hard, and there are arguments in both directions. First, any time someone wins it opens up a bunch of coulda-woulda-shouldas and they’re often bunk. Further, given the margin of victory here, it would have taken more than a bit of a course change for the outcome to be different. My own sense is that Strange had enough liabilities that it would have been a hard race for him to win even without the bruising battle with Brooks. Further, my sense is that Brooks may not have been a strong enough candidate to win without Strange in the race. As Trump did during the Republican primary, Moore benefited from a divided field with two candidates that were unacceptable to the other factions of the party. That’s not just a matter of luck, though.
Moore himself, though, has a pretty checkered history in Alabama, electorally. One might have the impression that he is well-regarded by the electorate (or at least the Republicans electorate). He has mostly persevered in part through familiarity and persistence. After getting tossed from the bench the first time on the Ten Commandments issue, it looked to all the world (including me) that he had it made. He announced his run for governor and I thought he would win. The incumbent, Bob Riley, was unpopular generally and with Republicans in particular. He had tried and failed to revamp the tax code to make it less regressive. Democrats supported him, conservatives blasted him, and voters ultimately rejected it by a wide margin. He was bleeding, and Moore looked poised to take him out. Riley won by a 2-to-1 margin. Four years later, in 2010, he ran for governor again and got fourth place in the Republican primary. It was only in 2012 when he ran for his old job and narrowly won again that he got his second act in politics.
A lot changed between 2012 and 2016, however. While I don’t personally believe his election was inevitable, he was certainly better positioned in 2016 than he would have been at an earlier time. Not the least of which was the ascent of Donald Trump, which demolished what remained of the party’s guardrails. Perhaps the biggest aspect for me, personally, is to drive home just how much the party has lost control of itself. Moore ran against McConnell. And won. Even the anti-establishment rabble-rousers lost, having largely lined up behind Brooks.
None of this places us anywhere but where we are. However Moore won, he won. He will likely win in November. Most of the Republicans and conservatives who didn’t support him will support him going forward, if they haven’t already. Democrats will be able to hang him around their neck, for whatever that’s worth. I’m not terribly sure it will be worth all that much. They can give him the Akin Treatment, but the sad fact is that Akin would probably have won in 2016. Politically, it’s not at all clear that there will be a price to be paid.
Norms, it turns out, matter.
And once you’ve lost a gag reflex, it’s hard to get back.