Two high-profile special election primaries in deep-red states took place on Tuesday: for U.S. House in Utah, and for U.S. Senate in Alabama. In both races, candidates with backing from national fiscal conservative figures and organizations floundered, while establishment picks pulled ahead.
In Utah’s third congressional district, where voters were selecting the replacement for U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, conservative State Representative Christopher Herrod lost the Republican primary to moderate Provo Mayor John Curtis by nine percentage points. Herrod had previously won the nominating convention in June, but failed to get a high enough percentage of the vote to prevent a primary taking place. Herrod had the endorsement of Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth, and the Senate Conservatives Fund. Curtis was considered the most moderate candidate in the race, with third place finisher Tanner Ainge positioning himself as in between Herrod and Curtis ideologically.
Meanwhile in Alabama, Republicans were deciding which two candidates would go on to the primary runoff to become the Republican nominee to succeed now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions as U.S. Senator. In another three-way race, incumbent Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL), who had been appointed to replace Sessions by Gov. Robert Bentley, faced two hardline conservatives, U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks and former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court Roy Moore. Brooks, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, had heavy backing from both fiscal conservatives such as Freedom Caucus Chair Mark Meadows (R-NC), FreedomWorks, and the Senate Conservatives Fund, as well as from nationalist allies of the President such as Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, Students for Trump, and the Trump campaign’s former Alabama State Chair. While Brooks is generally associated with free market advocates in Congress, he holds views on immigration and trade that line up closely with Trump’s ‘America First’ ideology. However, to the surprise of many observers, the President joined Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in backing Strange, who is typically regarded as the establishment candidate in the race. Strange’s campaign and super PACs fiercely hammered Brooks with attack ads. Ultimately, Strange was able to make it into the runoff, but lost first place to Moore, an outsider candidate who beat him by roughly 6%. Given the intense rivalry between Strange and Brooks, and Moore’s strong conservative bona fides, most of Brooks’ support is expected to fall behind Moore in the runoff on September 26.
Although Brooks declined to make a specific endorsement, he made his own preference very clear in remarks yesterday evening.
“I want to compliment Judge Roy Moore on the high quality race he ran,” Brooks said, describing Moore’s campaign as “very honest” and “very honorable”.
As for Strange, Brooks mockingly stated: “I want to congratulate the people who were behind him. Mitch McConnell, the Washington establishment, the K street lobbyists. They put together some very tough ads knowing full well I was not in position to respond. Accolades must go to those who fight as hard as they fought.”
The defeats of Brooks and Herrod are certainly a blow to the right of the Republican Party, which had invested substantially in both races. Given the safeness of these electorates, Republicans are virtually guaranteed to hold both seats in the November 7 special elections, but eyes will certainly be on both races to see what percentages the Democrats rack up. In Utah, Democrats are banking on continued skepticism of the President among traditional Republican voters in a state where Trump won less than half of the popular vote last year. In Alabama, they hope Moore’s hardline social conservative views will enable them to pick off more moderate voters, if he manages to makes the runoff.