Roy Moore, brash conservative, wins Alabama Republican Senate primary over Trump-endorsed candidate

Former state Chief Justice Roy Moore won the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in Alabama on Tuesday as voters brushed aside pleas from President Trump and millions in ads from establishment Republicans and chose a brash and controversial conservative.

Moore defeated Sen. Luther Strange, who had been appointed to the seat in April by GOP Gov. Robert J. Bentley to replace Jeff Sessions when he became attorney general. Moore held a double-digit lead throughout the night as votes were counted, and with about two-thirds of precincts reporting, led 56% to 43%.

At the time of Strange’s appointment, Bentley was under threat of impeachment because of a sex scandal, and he later resigned. Throughout the campaign, Strange, who was state attorney general before joining the Senate, had to fight off questions about the ethics of seeking a Senate nomination from a governor his staff was investigating.

But Strange also fought — and Moore appeared to profit from — voters’ anti-Washington sentiment. Not even Trump’s endorsement, and personal pitches including a rally in Huntsville on Friday, persuaded voters to pick the more reserved Strange over Moore, a perennial firebrand.

“Congratulations to Roy Moore on his Republican Primary win in Alabama. Luther Strange started way back & ran a good race. Roy, WIN in Nov!” Trump tweeted late Tuesday. He later corrected the month — the election is Dec. 12.

Trump had argued that Strange would have coasted to victory against Democrat Doug Jones in that vote, and that Moore’s nomination would make the seat competitive for Democrats. But voters went with Moore.

“People like Donald Trump, and people like Roy Moore, and they don’t feel they have to choose between the two,” said GOP pollster Brent Buchanan, whose Monday poll found Moore with a double-digit lead. “They are bold and brash, and people prefer that over polished politicians right now. And they know where those guys stand,” he said.

Moore showed his boldness in his election eve rally. To counter Strange’s claim that he was soft on the 2nd Amendment, Moore brandished a revolver onstage. On Tuesday, he cantered to the polls on his horse.

Moore has sought multiple offices during decades in Alabama politics, making him well-known among the state’s voters. He also has been a magnet for controversy: His record includes being stripped of his court seat twice — once for setting up a monument to the Ten Commandments on state land and then for refusing to adhere to court decisions allowing gay marriage.

In recent days Moore referred to Asian and Native Americans as “yellows” and “reds,” in keeping with years of controversial statements.

Moore’s victory is likely to unleash a stream of Republican fault-finding. Even before election day, Trump appeared to be getting ready to blame Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky for the loss.

“As you know Mitch is not, polling-wise, the most popular guy in the country,” Trump said Monday on the “Rick and Bubba” radio show. He took part in an interview meant to show that Strange would not be beholden to McConnell despite the millions being poured into his campaign by groups allied with the GOP leader.

“They like to label him Mitch’s best friend in the Senate, and he hardly even knows him. He’ll be fighting Mitch,” Trump said.

Republicans may also question whether another failed GOP measure to repeal and replace President Obama’s healthcare program played into the results. McConnell and Senate leaders canceled a vote on their latest effort midway through election day, but it was considered near death for days.

If Moore defeats Jones in December’s match-up, he is likely to make it harder for Republican senators to unify. He said during the campaign that he would have voted against the Graham-Cassidy healthcare bill, which Strange supported and McConnell pushed before its demise Tuesday.

Moore’s primary victory could provide fuel for opponents of establishment Republicans, who are considering challenges to GOP incumbents in several states where they contend the officeholders have strayed from Trump’s agenda. That effort includes the president’s former chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon.

Bannon appeared with Moore at Monday’s rally, savaging McConnell and by extension the candidate favored by Trump.

“Mitch McConnell and this permanent political class is the most corrupt and incompetent group of individuals in this country. They think you're a pack of morons. They think you're nothing but rubes. They have no interest at all in what you have to say, what you have to think or what you want to do,” he said.

The last days of the campaign betrayed how destructive the primary race had become. On Monday, in dueling Fox News interviews, Strange and Moore went at each other with a fierceness usually reserved for Democrats.

Strange said electing Moore would be “catastrophic” for Republicans because Democrats might be able to beat the former state chief justice as a result of the controversies in his past.

“What has he actually done for the conservative cause? I couldn’t point to anything actually getting stuff done,” Strange said on Fox. Trump, he said, knows that “I can work with him to get it done.”

Moore, in his interview, said Strange “has done nothing but tell mistruths, lies … he’s so far not told the truth about hardly anything.”

Moore said he supports Trump and would continue to do so if elected. “Democrats want my opponent to be elected,” he said.

Trump opened election day by exhorting voters via Twitter. “ALABAMA, get out and vote for Luther Strange - he has proven to me that he will never let you down!” Trump tweeted.

On Friday night in Huntsville, Trump praised Strange repeatedly but also sounded equivocal about his position in the race.

“I have to be honest; I may have made a mistake,” Trump said, asserting that if Strange lost, Trump would be blamed.

In that case, he said, he would campaign for Moore.

“Both good men,” he said. “I told Luther, if his opponent wins, I’m going to be campaigning like hell for him.”

A Cygnal/L2 poll released Monday found that Trump’s support of Strange had little impact on voters’ choice.

For more on politics from Cathleen Decker »

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Twitter: @cathleendecker

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UPDATES:

7:25 p.m.: Updated with a tweet from President Trump.

6:50 p.m.: Updated with results from about two-thirds of precincts.

This article was originally published at 6:35 p.m.

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