MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who was twice removed from his judicial duties, forced a primary runoff Tuesday against Trump-backed incumbent Sen. Luther Strange in a race likely to be closely watched for clues about Republicans' prospects in 2018 midterm elections.
Despite being buoyed by millions of dollars in advertising by a super political action committee tied to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Strange was unable to defeat the firebrand jurist who took losing stands for the public display of the Ten Commandments and against gay marriage.
Moore told cheering supporters that they had sent a great message to Washington, D.C., in a race where Moore presented himself as the better carrier of Trump's outsider appeal.
"This is a great victory. The attempt by the silk stocking Washington elitists to control the vote of the people of Alabama has failed," Moore said at his victory party in downtown Montgomery, with a copy of the Ten Commandments among the decorations.
Strange's struggles have already raised concerns among sitting GOP members of Congress, even if he ultimately survives.
"There are a probably a number of incumbents on both sides of the aisle who should take notice of another demonstration that voters still want change," said Greg Strimple, a Republican pollster for a political action committee aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan.
"The takeaway is that Washington is very unpopular," Strimple said, and that overrides even President Donald Trump's endorsement, because he cannot simply "transfer his brand" to candidates, like the lobbyist-turned-politician Strange, who fail to establish their own outsider credentials.
Trump's approval rating has hit a new low of 34 percent, according to Gallup, but strong currents of support still flow through the Republican electorate in Alabama, where the GOP candidates went all-out to attract Trump voters and throw shade on the Washington, D.C. "swamp."
Strange had emphasized his Trump endorsement — delivered first via Twitter and then in recorded phone calls to voters — in the closing days of the race but had acknowledged all along that a runoff was likely because of the crowded GOP field in a low-turnout special election.
"He knows that I'm the person in the race who is going to help him make this country great again," Strange said of Trump's support. "It all boils down to who's best suited to stand with the people of this country — with our president — to make America great again," Strange said.
The senator, a former college basketball player sometimes called "Big Luther" because of his 6-foot-9 frame, said he liked his chances in a "one-on-one" matchup with Moore. The two will meet in a Sept. 26 runoff. The winner will face Democratic nominee Doug Jones in a December election.
Moore harnessed his strong support among evangelical voters to lead the first round of primary voting despite a shoestring budget. His critics have sometimes derided him as the "Ayatollah of Alabama," accusing him of intertwining his personal religious beliefs and judicial responsibilities.
Alabama's judicial discipline panel removed Moore as chief justice in 2003 for disobeying a federal judge's order to remove a boulder-sized Ten Commandments monument from the state courthouse. He was permanently suspended last year after telling probate judges they remained under a state court order to deny marriage licenses to gay
Throughout the race, Moore wore his ousters from the bench as something of a badge of honor, telling Republican voters in the blood-red state that they are akin to battle scars for standing up for what he believes.
In the rural community of Gallant in northeast Alabama, Jimmy Wright, 41, showed up early Tuesday to vote for Moore.
Aside from being a neighbor, Wright said, he likes the way the ousted judge conducted his campaign.
"He's the only one who hasn't been talking crap about the others," Wright said. Trump's support for Strange didn't matter to him, he said.
In Montgomery, retired teacher Tommy Goggans said he turned out specifically "to keep Roy Moore from getting it." Why? "He's been kicked out of everything he's done."
Strange was Alabama's attorney general before he was appointed to the Senate in February by Gov. Robert Bentley, who soon resigned in scandal. Strange said he did Bentley no favors, but his challengers questioned the ethics of seeking the appointment while investigating the governor.
On the Democratic side, a former U.S. attorney under the Clinton administration, Jones was backed by former Vice President Joe Biden and some other national party figures. He is perhaps best known for leading the prosecution of two Klansmen for the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four little girls.
Although Alabama has not been represented by a Democrat in the U.S. Senate in 20 years, Jones has said Democrats must not concede the seat without a fight. He says Democrats can win if they can turn the conversation to "kitchen table issues" such as wages, health care and jobs.
"I think there are enough people in the state who are yearning for new leadership and a change," Jones said.
Associated Press Writer Jay Reeves in Gallant, Alabama and Bill Barrow in Atlanta contributed to this report.