Gallant, Alabama. Population: 208. Technically too small to be a town, it is officially labeled a “census-designated place.”
That said, on August 15, Gallant was a powerful emblem of our democracy. It was election day, with Alabama hosting the primary to eventually fill the Senate seat once owned by Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III.
While voters waited to fill out their ballots, a 70-year-old man in a black t-shirt, jeans, and a cowboy hat emerged on horseback from the tangled shrubbery and trotted toward the polling station.
The man told reporters that he rides his horse, Sassy, every time he votes. Proud of his family’s history of equestrian proficiency and civic participation, he presented himself as a simple man. His father worked construction in Etowah County. He served in Vietnam. And he based almost all of his decisions on the Bible’s teachings. Sure, some of the man’s views were a little out there—he thought Islam was a “false religion”—but nonetheless, he was participating in the democratic process.
But the man on the horse was not just a voter. He was a candidate. And now, after two rounds of a GOP primary, Roy Moore is likely to become the newest senator for the state of Alabama.
Born in Gadsden during the city’s postwar industrial boom, Roy Moore studied at West Point and served in the Vietnam War. Afterwards, he spent a year as a professional kickboxer before travelling to the Australian outback for a reprieve as an actual, honest-to-god cowboy. When asked about his most prolific moments in these years, Moore interlaced his account with one motif: divine intervention.
During these wanderings, Moore prepared for his eventual career: Justice of the Peace in Alabama. He won his first commission in his old hometown of Etowah and eventually rose to national prominence due to an incident that cost him the bench.
In July 2001, Moore, then Chief Justice of Alabama, unveiled a two-and-a-half-ton marble monument of the Ten Commandments, complete with a copyright attributed to himself, in the center of the state courthouse. When asked to dismantle the piece, he refused, reminding constituents of his belief that “government is…pretending that it gives us our rights [when] those rights come from God.”
But Moore’s “return to the knowledge of God in our land” was short-lived, as federal courts insisted the statue fall. Instead of deferring to the supremacy of federal law, Moore insisted the Tenth Amendment vindicated his decision—the fact that the federal government can’t establish a state church, he argued, did not mean that Alabama could not—and fell on his sword, losing his job along with the monument.
Nevertheless, Moore’s career rose from the grave, and, in 2011, he retook the same office with a torrent of popular support behind him. Instead of shying away from his former antics, he doubled down, and stood by his conviction that religion supersedes the state once again after the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision. In the midst of the Kim Davis controversy, he demanded state bureaucrats not offer marriage licenses to homosexual couples. Again, he cited the Lord’s law. And, again, the federal government removed him.
With one incident after another, the government has repeatedly censored Moore. Nevertheless, he might be just months away from representing his state in the U.S. Senate. And he is currently at the successful conclusion of his most audacious ruse yet: He has made one of Donald Trump’s most enthusiastic backers seem too moderate to win.
To understand Senator Luther Strange’s platform, look no further than the commercials that Sessions’ interim replacement ran before the August primary. Locked in a tight three-way race for two runoff spots, Strange went after Mo Brooks, the current representative for Alabama’s Fifth Congressional District. Brooks’s fierce Tea Party agenda and fiery rhetoric provided plenty of fodder for a smear campaign. Nonetheless, when Strange wanted to crystalize one issue in voters’ minds, he played soundbite after soundbite of Brooks’ condemnation of then-candidate Donald Trump following the emergence of the now-infamous Access Hollywood tape. That attack resonated with Alabama voters, 62 percent of whom opted for Trump last November, and Brooks came in third place in the Senate primary.
Although at 6’9”, Strange stands taller than any other senator in history, he spent the last few months trying to hide behind Trump’s populist shadow. He doubled down on building the wall—a real one—and, according to his official campaign site, “banning refugees in terrorist countries from entering our borders.” In fact, on Strange’s issues page, “Supporting President Trump” was in itself the second most prominent policy.
In a way, this strategy made sense, as Strange did not have much of a policy background to call upon, and his national experience only extended half a year.
But his endorsement by Trump himself, affirmed by the President’s September trip to Huntsville for a rally, made him a powerful opponent on the campaign trail.
In any other scenario, Strange would have been hand-picked, straight from central casting, to win the seat in a landslide. But Moore did not just match Strange—he left him in the dust. Why? In a state where voters traditionally select candidates with a combination of conservatism and evangelism, Moore split the two. He presented himself as the more evangelical candidate, and let Strange be more conservative, forcing voters to choose one over the other.
The former Chief Justice has unabashedly criticized Trump’s morality, both in his not-Christian-enough policies and in his personal decorum. To Wayne Flint, professor emeritus of History at Auburn University, Moore’s success is a result of his unflinching “my way or the highway” approach.
“Interestingly, [in his time as a justice, Moore] never asked Catholics and Jews to lead in prayer,” Flint told The Politic. “He never reached out. Instead, he is making his own beliefs normative.”
As he normalized his own convictions, the base followed, with evangelical adherents capitalizing on the opportunity to control the state’s legislative voice.
When Strange tried to offer an equally compelling, populist GOP alternative, he was hampered by his own background. As a former lobbyist with a dubious path to power, his promises to “drain the swamp” fell flat.
“Regardless of your party, it’s hard to say Luther rose to power under anything but shaky circumstances,” Roy Johnson, a columnist with the Alabama Media Group, which owns most newspapers in the state, told The Politic. “Any Alabama voter will be aware that Strange was investigating former Governor [Robert] Bentley [for corruption charges which would later force the Governor to resign] and curiously dropped the investigation when he was promoted to the Senate seat by the same man.”
Flint went even further, deploring “Big Luther” as “the ultimate establishment candidate,” despite Strange’s commitment to Trumpism. As Flint pointed out, a lobbyist for big corporations in Washington was a poor fit for a state that usually prefers home-grown talent. This perception of Strange as Washington insider was only exacerbated by Strange’s campaign finances—Senate Republicans funneled money to the Senator, bankrolling most of the aforementioned anti-Brooks spots.
Nevertheless, much of this precariousness is par for the course in the state. As Johnson explained, “Unethical politics has a long and proud history in Alabama.”
And the trend is accelerating. The governor, Robert Bentley, and the speaker of the house, Mike Hubbard, were both removed from office for misallocation of funds and embezzlement, respectively, within the last 14 months.
In order to understand Moore’s appeal, it is important to look past corruption into the gut feelings that power both campaigns. By stoking the evangelical fervor which pervades the state’s political and social culture, Moore mobilized polls and pews alike.
First, to many, Moore’s appeals simply resonate. His insistence on the supremacy of God’s law doesn’t just attract a support base—it demands a zealous one. As Johnson said, “they don’t call [central Alabama] the Bible Belt for nothing.”
In a primary with a voter turnout below 18 percent, it should come as no surprise that highly motivated evangelicals were among the few who showed up. Religious zeal might be polemical for policy, but it is great for mobilizing a base.
Alabama’s evangelical ardor is not the only factor at play. As Flint pointed out, Alabamians have always sought “anti-establishment” officials. For candidates from Moore to Sessions to segregationist Governor George Wallace, standing up to the the federal government has long been enough to garner Alabama citizens’ approval. Strange failed to master this rebellious sentiment—instead he attempted to substitute it with something voters saw as a tendency for political opportunism.
Flint remarked that Moore has stood by his principles more than Strange has. “If polls came out saying 51 percent of the state were Communist, the first person to run a hammer and sickle over the statehouse would be Luther. Say what you will about Roy Moore, he believes in all of his crazy,” he said.
Even though Moore has criticized Trump, they share a common appeal. “At the end of the day, more voters are convinced Roy Moore is like Trump, while Luther speaks like Trump,” said Flint.
Those emphasizing evangelism like Moore offer an especially dangerous threat to Trump, by potentially siphoning off his most powerful base: Deep South conservatives. Donald Trump ascended to the Oval Office on calls to drain the swamp and turn the establishment on its head. Now that he is the establishment, how does he inspire his base?
After a bloody primary, Moore faces a heavyweight Democrat in the general election.
Doug Jones won the Democratic primary in such striking fashion that no runoff was needed. With views in line with those of “mainstream” Democrats, Jones’ renown has roots in his work prosecuting the perpetrators of the infamous 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham during the Civil Rights Movement. Despite the fact that no Democrat has won a U.S. Senate election in Alabama since 1992, Jones’ supporters have hope.
“As a result of [the Republican] situation, our candidate has a good chance of winning,” said Mary Parker, who leads the Jones campaign in Baldwin County, Alabama, in an interview with The Politic.
Deep South Democrats are capitalizing on their rejuvenated base with high levels of political participation. One such Democrat is Parker, who described herself as “a lifelong Democrat [who] wasn’t active in statewide elections because we haven’t had as phenomenal a candidate in a long time as Doug Jones.”
With the potent combination of 2016’s aftermath and Jones’s entrance into the election, “a whole lot of people jumped in immediately,” she said.
“Doug Jones is not making the mistake that Democrats made in Georgia or Montana,” said Flint, who also supports the candidate. “That is, he has not made his campaign against Trump. He’s been very low key. He is not painting himself as an outsider, he is well known and almost universally liked, largely because his only real public venture into Alabama public life was [prosecuting the 16th Street Baptist case]. So, even extreme conservatives know him for one good thing he did, which they support.”
As for what will happen in the election, the final result will likely come down to a factor less glamorous than the race itself: voter turnout.
Parker has spoken to several Democrats who were unaware of the irregularly-scheduled December contest. “People just don’t know there’s an election,” she said.
Regardless of the result, the Alabama special Senate election illuminates a schism in the Republican power structure. If it turns out people can effectively weaponize evangelist sympathies to corrode Trumpian candidates’ platforms, an entirely new world of possibilities might open up, for Democrats and radical right-wingers alike.