Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has a good thing going in Alabama Sen. Luther Strange. Appointed in February to fill Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ vacant seat, Strange meets two key criteria from leadership: He votes as he’s told, and he keeps his mouth shut. McConnell would like to keep him around.
But Alabama is a very conservative state. Left to its own devices, it might prefer to send someone pesky to Washington—the sort of disruptive legislator who can create mathematical problems for Senate leaders. McConnell wants the far-right bloc of Sens. Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul to decrease by one in a chamber where Republicans only hold a two-seat majority. He doesn’t want it to grow.
Senate leaders moved quickly to close ranks behind Strange ahead of Alabama’s special election, the all-important Republican primary for which is in August with a potential runoff scheduled for September. Politico reported in late April that the National Republican Senatorial Committee “has been discouraging consulting firms from working with Republicans running or weighing a challenge” against Strange. And the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Senate leadership, has also come out early behind Strange.
“We have made it very clear from the beginning that Sen. Luther Strange would be treated as an incumbent,” a spokesperson for the NRSC told Politico about what it’s been telling political firms looking at the race. “It has also been a clear policy that we will not use vendors who work against our incumbents.”
Treating Strange as just another incumbent who has their full backing, rather than a placeholder for an open seat, is generous of them. Strange was appointed to the job only a few months ago. The man who appointed him, Gov. Robert Bentley, has since resigned upon being indicted for his cover-up of a sex scandal. Strange’s own role in the Bentley saga—as the state attorney general who was angling for a Senate appointment and perhaps didn’t want to press too hard on the governor who would appoint him—has itself come under scrutiny. It’s true that he is an incumbent senator, but Strange has yet to go through the voters.
Such strong-arming can deter a certain type of politician: the nontroublemaker. Two Republican members of Congress who might have had a shot at the Senate seat, Reps. Robert Aderholt and Bradley Byrne, decided to pass. Maybe they weren’t all that interested. Maybe they couldn’t find a path to victory. Or maybe they just couldn’t find anyone to work for them, because the Republican establishment had threatened the consultant class. Either way, these noncandidacies cleared much of the threatening opposition to Strange.
But not all of it. Two recently announced candidates are the exact sort of figures that McConnell wouldn’t want to join him in the United States Senate. Accordingly, they also don’t really care about the threats that his apparatus makes.
Roy Moore resigned last month as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, a role from which he’d been suspended, to run for the Senate seat. Moore is famous nationally for two controversial actions as chief justice. They are similar in nature, and each time he paid the price in the form of his job. In the early 2000s, Moore infamously refused to remove a beloved Ten Commandments monument from the state Supreme Court building per a federal court ruling. At the time, Chief Justice Moore was removed from his post. After a couple of failed gubernatorial bids, Moore was elected back to the Supreme Court as chief justice in 2012. He didn’t last much longer this time around. Moore was suspended from the court in 2016 after instructing state probate judges to disregard the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage. Moore at the time argued that the Supreme Court majority in Obergefell “destroyed the institution of God,” acting on Satan’s behalf. In short, Roy Moore is not the sort of reliable figure that a Senate majority leader would like to have in his caucus.
Neither for that matter is Rep. Mo Brooks, who announced his candidacy on Monday. From the perspective of a reporter, Mo Brooks is a great candidate and would be a great senator to cover: He talks. (And talks, and talks.) He is one of the most hardened Freedom Caucus members, and thus one of the most interesting. He doesn’t enjoy voting in favor of compromise legislation, and he rarely does so. He begrudgingly voted for the American Health Care Act once he learned that it would “require people who have higher health care costs to contribute more to the insurance pool” and let people who “lead good lives” off the hook. He once suggested that President Obama’s executive actions could result in impeachment and “jail time.” He’s not big into smiling. Political observers less generous than yours truly might describe Brooks as a crank. This type of person might hold some appeal in certain political scenarios—perhaps in, say, a Republican primary in one of the most conservative states in the country?
Brooks’ announcement was all but two-seconds old on Monday before the Senate Leadership Fund released the following statement:
While Luther Strange was cleaning up the corruption in Montgomery, Mo Brooks was living the life of a Washington insider, opposing Donald Trump and failing to get a single bill signed into law in four terms in the House. If Brooks can’t cut it in the House, how can he be trusted to deliver results in the U.S. Senate? It’s clear Mo Brooks is more interested in advancing his own career than he is with delivering for Alabama.
The filing deadline for the special election is Wednesday, and all eyes are on whether state Senate President pro tempore Del Marsh also jumps into the race. If he gets in, that makes a runoff almost certain. If he doesn’t, then no bother; Alabama and interested outside observers will already have the trappings of a spectacularly nuts summer special-election primary. There will be Mitch McConnell’s guy and at least two other prominent figures put on Earth to annoy figures like Mitch McConnell. A Republican will hold this seat. But McConnell can’t bank on it being one that he wants.