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Stacy Column: Roy Moore and why 2020 is not 2017

By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News

I get asked all the time what I think of Alabama’s U.S. Senate race. For months curious politicos have pondered who might get in race, who can raise the most money, who can claim the “outsider” lane, and so on. I’ve resisted getting too specific, relying mostly on banal political platitudes and saying, “ask me when the field settles a bit.”

Well, now the field has settled a bit. Former Chief Justice Roy Moore and current Secretary of State John Merrill are the last of the major candidates I expect to enter the race. There could be a few other lower-tier candidates to give it a shot, but barring anything crazy happening, this is your Republican U.S. Senate ballot for March 2020:

  • Congressman Bradley Byrne
  • Former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville
  • State Rep. Arnold Mooney
  • Former Chief Justice Roy Moore
  • Secretary of State John Merrill

Don’t worry, I won’t offer any horse race prognostications. It’s far too early for that. What I will offer is some advice for those following what will surely be an interesting race: be careful about buying into conventional wisdom.

Many in the media, including our friends in the national media, are resigned to the idea that Roy Moore has already won this primary and that the other candidates are really just fighting for a second place spot in a runoff. I don’t blame anyone for reflexively thinking that, especially if they don’t follow or cover Alabama politics day to day. Roy Moore has almost universal name recognition among Alabama Republicans, his base of supporters remains loyal, and he coasted to victory in the last GOP contest. And let’s be honest, some in the national media are probably rooting for a Roy Moore – Doug Jones rematch.

Not so fast. There was a lot that made that 2017 special election, well, special. There are two fundamental reasons why 2020 is not 2017 and why I think GOP voters could take a pass on Moore this time around.

First, there is no Luther Strange.

Big Luther just didn’t work as a candidate. Both the circumstances of his appointment to the U.S. Senate and the way Washington insisted on pushing his candidacy made him uniquely off-putting to many GOP voters. Even if you take Strange at his word that there was no quid pro quo between him and former Gov. Robert Bentley, no one can deny that it certainly looked like there was. The Attorney General’s office is investigating possible wrongdoing by the Governor and his staff – a sex scandal, no less – and suddenly the Governor appoints that Attorney General to a coveted U.S. Senate seat? It was the kind of made-for-TV narrative that even casual political observers could understand and remember.

Then Washington got involved. When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the National Republican Senatorial Committee annointed Strange as their candidate, they went all in, clearing the field of other potential candidates and attacking those like Congressman Mo Brooks who did dare to run against Luther. I’m sure they felt like those were the best choices, but the whole thing was a big turnoff to regular Republican voters. The biggest indication of that was President Trump himself, who, when giving his awkward, half-assed endorsement of Luther at a Huntsville rally, was visibly unconvinced he could win.

All that worked to Moore’s advantage in 2017. It fractured the GOP electorate enough to give Moore a boost in the June primary and left Strange hopelessly wounded in the August runoff. This time around, there is no candidate with that kind of baggage in the race and the Washington crowd seems to have learned its lesson about shoving their hand-picked candidate down voters’ throats.

The second fundamental reason why 2020 is unlike 2017 is that Roy Moore already lost. That year he became the first Republican in more than ten years to lose a statewide race to a Democrat. Alabamians like winners, so that dubious distinction doesn’t help. But more importantly, the way he lost makes him a risky choice for Republican voters. Roy Moore lost in spectacular fashion: the avalanche of abuse allegations that befell him, the campaign’s tone deaf response to it all, the caricatured gun-toting cowboy rally with Steve Bannon – it was a mess. Even if you believe, as some do, that the whole thing was an orchestrated plot from the Democrats, there’s no denying that enough voters were turned off by Moore to hand the election to Doug Jones. And all of that isn’t going away. For Republican voters desperate to win this Senate seat back into GOP hands, Roy Moore is the riskiest choice of all the candidates because he’s already proven he can lose to Doug Jones.

It’s already well-proven that Roy Moore does better in low-key, low-turnout contests like the 2017 primary than in marquee contests. Take his runs for governor, for instance, in which he lost to Gov. Bob Riley two-to-one in 2006 and placed a distant fourth in 2010.

Anything could happen in this Senate race, as those political platitudes will tell you. But be careful of buying into the conventional wisdom that tells you the race is all but over.

Todd C. Stacy is the publisher of the Alabama Daily News. Email him at [email protected].

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