By Joseph Hammond
Former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore was defeated this week in a special election by incoming Democratic rival Doug Jones. For the Democrats it was a chance to turn the tide against President Trump and also to test strategies and candidates for future elections. Most notably New Jersey Senator Corey Booker.
“My family were coal miners in the state of Alabama. I owe a debt to Alabamans, and I can’t pay it back — those generations have passed — but I can pay it forward,” he said.
Booker might pay it forward with a 2020 Presidential run against Trump but, for now the Alabama election may have an even larger impact on conservative politics in the United States than previously thought. Even before the recent special election the Alabama Republican Party of which Roy Moore was a part was in shambles with infighting and personal rivalries impacting the party’s cohesion state-wide. Moore’s senate campaign sputtered – despite the support of President Donald Trump and Breitbart executive Steve Bannon – after allegations emerged of sexual impropriety. The scandal was only the latest to hit the state which is one of the country’s poorest. According to the Urban Institute some 40% of Alabama residents are in debt – ranking number six in the country. If the economy isn’t doing well the politics are even more of a mess.
In recent years Alabama has seen its speaker of the House, Mike Hubbard, convicted on a dozen felony charges. Not to mention the resignation of the governor Robert Bentley and then came Roy Moore. No wonder some 800,000 voters most of them Republicans did not even bother to show-up at the polls this December.
If many Alabama voters have had enough of the GOP politics in the state, they have also had enough of Roy Moore. After his election in 2001 installed the Ten Commandments outside the Alabama Court of Judiciary known as “Roy’s Rock” that single issue has defined his political career.
Removed from the position in 2003 for refusing a federal court order to remove that rock he soon returned to politics. He launched two failed gubernatorial campaigns and even ran for president before being re-elected as a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama in a close election in 2012 and again removed from office.
The judicial election of 2012 took place in the context of the large Presidential race that year. A race worth reviewing for some insight into just how unpopular Roy Moore was in the state beyond those who were committed to the candidate after his Ten Commandment stand.
Mitt Romney apparently had not forgotten the results of the 2012 Presidential Election in Alabama – an election in which Alabama voters apparently preferred him to Roy Moore. On election night 2012, Mitt Romney earned 1,255,925 votes in Alabama – improving slightly on John McCain’s performance four years earlier.
That same night Roy Moore squeaked out a narrow victory for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Here is the remarkable thing. Moore earned only 1,051,627 votes meaning that roughly 200,000 Mitt Romney voters choose not to vote for him (see official statistics here).
Usually, in Presidential Races the inverse happens – the Presidential race increases turnout for other Republican candidates. Alabama Republicans it should also be noted were not big fans of Mitt Romney in 2012. Earlier in the year, Romney had lost the state in the Republican Primary finishing third to Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. In November of this year, Romney became the most high-profile Republican to speak out against Roy Moore tweeting. “Innocent until proven guilty is for criminal convictions, not elections,” and adding in light of the allegations that “Moore is unfit for office and should step aside.”
Romney was soon joined by some high-profile Republican Senators including another former Republican presidential nominee – John McCain. However, it was Romney who Steve Bannon personal singled out for attack days before the election. In part because Romney along with Marco Rubio is seen as potentially preparing to challenge Trump in the 2020 Republican presidential primary. Mitt Romney’s vice presidential candidate in 2012, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, has announced plans to leave Congress after the 2018 mid-term elections. Perhaps the resignation is meant to begin planning another presidential run – with or without Romney
Bannon and his supporters have other Republican enemies as well notably Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Bannon has made the removal of Tillerson one of his primary goals since leaving the White House. However, in light of what happened in Alabama, they may learn to live with the former head of Exxon Mobil in his current position.
In November the Trump Administration was reportedly planning to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Under this plan, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton would be brought in to run the CIA. Tom Cotton would be the youngest man ever to head the CIA. However, his appointment could also potentially put his Arkansas Senate seat into contention. If Tom Cotton leaves before July 6, 2018, for a position in the Trump Administration that vacancy would be filled in a special election on November 6, 2018.
After the Roy Moore debacle, the White House may decide to live with T-Rex and not decide to tempt the ballot box even in a “safe” red-state like Arkansas.
After all the state did produce the most important Democratic political dynasty of the last decade – the Clintons.
Joseph Hammond is a fellow of the Center for Media and Peace Initiatives. A former Cairo correspondent for Radio Free Europe during the 2011 Arab Spring, he has also reported from four continents on issues ranging from the stability in Somalia to the M23 rebellion in the Eastern Congo. He is a former Fulbright Public Policy fellow with the government of Malawi and a former Penn Kemble Forum Fellow at the National Endowment of Democracy. He tweets @TheJosephH, Hammond’s work has been published by The Economist, Forbes, U.S News and World Report, and a host of other publications.