In the primary runoff to choose Alabama’s Republican U.S. Senate candidate, both options are horrendous when it comes to LGBT rights and other progressive concerns — but looking ahead to the general election, there’s a glimmer of hope.
The runoff, taking place September 26, will determine whether the Republican standard-bearer will be Roy Moore, the infamously anti-LGBT former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, or Luther Strange, the current interim senator, who can at best be called Roy Moore lite. They were the top two vote recipients in the August 15 primary, but neither won a majority — there were nine candidates in the GOP race — making the runoff necessary.
“We feel that in this election, Republican primary voters have been given no choice,” says Eva Kendrick, Alabama state director for the Human Rights Campaign, further describing Strange and Moore as “bad and worse.” But there is some cautious optimism among progressives about the general election, to be held December 12.
In that contest, either Moore or Strange will face Democrat Doug Jones, a former federal prosecutor and Senate aide who received a clear majority of the vote in his primary. Recent polls show him in a dead heat with either Republican, setting up the possibility that deep-red Alabama could have its first Democratic U.S. senator in 20 years.
The state is choosing a senator this year because Jeff Sessions, himself a notoriously anti-LGBT politician, resigned his Senate seat to become U.S. attorney general. In February, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley appointed Strange, who had been Alabama’s attorney general, to take Sessions’s Senate post.
Bentley was willing to wait for the Senate election to take place in 2018, in keeping with the normal election cycle. But in April, he resigned amid charges that he had improperly used campaign funds to cover up an extramarital affair. Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey moved up to governor and called a special Senate election for this year.
Bentley’s not the only Alabama official to leave office under a cloud recently. Moore was removed as chief justice due to ethics violations related to his efforts to block marriage equality in the state. Alabama’s Judicial Inquiry Commission last fall suspended him for the remainder of his term, which ends in 2019, and a special court of retired judges upheld that ruling in April, after Moore appealed. He’s too old to run again for the Alabama Supreme Court, whose members are elected — under state law, no one 70 or older can be elected to the court, and Moore turned 70 in February.
But he’s not too old to run for U.S. senator, and he quickly began planning a bid for that office. Barely a week after his suspension was affirmed, he announced his Senate run with typical rhetoric. “I know and I think you do too that the foundations of the fabric of our country are being shaken tremendously,” he told supporters. “Our families are being crippled by divorce and abortion. Our sacred institution of marriage has been destroyed by the [U.S.] Supreme Court. Our rights and liberties are in jeopardy.”
That’s actually toned down somewhat from his usual manner of speaking. He has said marriage equality will “literally cause the destruction of our country or lead to the destruction of our country over the long run”; that transgender people have a mental disorder; and that actions against opponents of marriage equality are similar to the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany. And news just surfaced Thursday that he had told a Baptist church audience in February that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, may have happened because the U.S. had turned away from God and taken steps to "legitimize sodomy" and "legitimize abortion."
He fought strenuously to keep marriage equality from coming to Alabama, both after a U.S. district judge struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage in January 2015 and after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell ruling invalidating such bans nationwide in June of that year. He advised Alabama probate judges, who are in charge of issuing marriage licenses in the state, that the ban remained in force and that the Obergefell decision affected only the states named in it — which was not true.
Moore had been booted from the court once before, for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state courthouse grounds; a federal court found the monument to be an unconstitutional establishment of religion. An Alabama political columnist recently highlighted the fact that Moore had copyrighted the monument and that he frequently autographs Bibles at campaign events. Both of these acts are usually performed by a work’s creator.
Moore isn’t just anti-LGBT; his positions down the line are those of the far right, particularly the religious right. He’s opposed to abortion and to federal funding for Planned Parenthood, even though those funds can’t be used for abortions. He’s for education vouchers to help students attend private schools, and his campaign website specifically says Christian schools should be encouraged. The site also calls for repeal of the Affordable Care Act, lower taxes and fewer regulations on businesses, and stopping “the flow of illegal aliens” into the U.S.
“Moore is just fundamentally unfit for public office,” says Kendrick, adding that Strange is no better, or barely so.
While more circumspect in his rhetoric than Moore, Strange is pretty much the jurist’s ideological twin. “As a leader in the Republican Attorney General Association (at the time of his Senate appointment he was chairman-elect) he helped spearhead legal opposition to the Obama administration’s policies on immigration, environmental protection, health care, and LGBT rights,” The New Republic reported earlier this year.
He was among the state attorneys general who sued the Obama administration over its guidelines on how schools should treat transgender students; the suit led to a federal judge blocking the guidelines, and the Trump administration has now rescinded them. He also tried to block the district court’s marriage equality ruling, although he didn’t go as far as Moore in thinking he could stand against the U.S. Supreme Court. “While I do not agree with the opinion of the majority of the justices in their decision, I acknowledge that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling is now the law of the land,” he said of the Obergefell ruling.
His campaign website doesn’t mention LGBT issues, but it does have a dog-whistle reference to “religious liberty” and links to a story about Strange filing a brief in support of retailer Hobby Lobby, which successfully challenged the ACA mandate for contraceptive coverage in employee insurance plans. The site also notes his support for ACA repeal, gun rights, and strict enforcement of immigration law.
In his brief time in the Senate, he’s sponsored a bill declaring that human life begins at fertilization, one that would nullify certain reporting requirements for gun dealers, and another denying federal funds to so-called sanctuary cities, which offer protection to undocumented immigrants.
His campaign site notes endorsements from Donald Trump, the National Rifle Association, and the National Right to Life Committee, but despite his solidly right-wing stances, Strange is anathema to some conservatives. Far-right website Breitbart has called him a “swamp monster,” as in the federal government swamp Trump is allegedly supposed to be draining. Moore has the endorsement of Breitbart executive and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and such conservative luminaries as Sarah Palin, Sean Hannity, Gordon Klingenschmitt, and the National Organization for Marriage.
HRC Alabama isn’t going to far as to advise Republicans not to vote in the runoff — not that many Alabama Republicans would have much allegiance to HRC — but it is telling them to “vote informed,” Kendrick says. (By the way, state law prevents those who voted in the Democratic primary from voting in the Republican runoff.) Polls indicate Moore has a big lead, although the revelation of his 9/11 comments could change that.
HRC hasn’t taken a stand in the general election, although it may do so at some point, but Kendrick is encouraged by the level of support Jones is receiving. The LGBT-friendly candidate has an impressive résumé. He was an aide to Howell Heflin, the last Democrat Alabamians sent to the U.S. Senate, and he was appointed by President Clinton as U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama in 1997. In the latter post, he led the successful prosecution of two Ku Klux Klan members who had previously eluded justice for their involvement in the 1963 bombing of a black church in Birmingham, in which four young girls were killed.
Jones is also pro-choice and pro-environment, and he supports improving the ACA rather than repealing it. His message is apparently resonating with some state residents. A poll conducted this month by Emerson College put Jones in a statistical tie with either Moore or Strange — about 40 percent of respondents said they would vote for him in the general election, about 43 percent for either Republican. The difference is within the poll’s 4.8-percentage-point margin of error.
“It’s exciting to see a progressive candidate who is connecting with people in Alabama,” says Kendrick.
So, while the Republican choices are bad and worse, the better choice seems to have a chance, and the antigay ways of Roy Moore and Luther Strange can go where they belong — into the dustbin of history.