By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist
The news from the Alabama Senate primary has been mostly quiet as candidates stake out their positions on immigration, health care, and support for President Donald Trump. Frontrunners like Congressman Bradley Byrne and former Auburn head football coach Tommy Tuberville have been spending time at Republican meetings around the state, enjoying plenty of barbecue and banana pudding. That’s how politics really is supposed to work; candidates spend a lot of time with local groups getting a feel for the issues, making their pitch, and adjusting to the reality on the ground as much as they can without compromising their principles.
Of course events can overtake a campaign even a year out from the primary. I would assume every Republican running for Senate had a contingency plan in the event of a Roy Moore candidacy, and now it’s here. Just like Clark Griswold’s plans for a fun, old-fashioned family Christmas, Moore has shown up like “Cousin Eddie,” ruining what should be a conventional primary and generally making everyone uncomfortable.
Moore’s candidacy was formally announced on Thursday June 20, complete with the Judge himself leading his press conference in the Pledge of Allegiance. Moore spent a lot of time talking about fake news and a collusion conspiracy against him on the part of the Republican Establishment. When asked about the 2017 accusations that he once had a penchant for wooing underage girls, Moore dismissed the charges as nonsense, and tried to attach himself to the coattails of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. I’m not sure that’s a wise move, given how contentious that affair was, but in any case, Kavanaugh was aided by a sterling reputation earned in the Washington legal community over the last twenty-five years. Moore has spent the last quarter century giving Alabamians skewed lessons in history and Scripture while dressed like Ralphie from A Christmas Story. Say what you will about the merits of Brett Kavanaugh; the two men are hardly comparable.
If Moore and his supporters find it odd that the accusations against him came out of nowhere in the fall of 2017, the answer is simple and dispiriting. No one ever really took his candidacy seriously enough to investigate his past. After being removed from office for defying a federal court order, Moore’s public career was rightfully judged to be finished. Apparently there is no end to second lives in Alabama politics. Moore managed to survive the GOP primary in 2017 but
the knives came out for real when it appeared he stood a chance to win. If Moore is correct and there was any sort of collusion between national Republicans and Democrats, it is likely because the national GOP was willing to give up the Senate seat temporarily in order to avoid being saddled with every whacky thing Moore said or did for the next three years. Mitch McConnell is busy enough putting out fires from the White House. He did not need the stress of it within his own caucus.
Much of the commentary around Moore has been critical of Alabama Republicans. That’s a fair assessment of voters, though I’m not sure how much the party infrastructure can do given the limits on fundraising imposed upon parties. For all the hand-wringing over campaign finance, limits on party fundraising have only empowered outside groups who have far less incentive to make rational decisions with an eye to the long game. The parties themselves have their hands tied, though I’m sympathetic to the idea that it’s time to bring back the smoke-filled back room that manipulated party politics in a bygone era. You may not like the idea of political dealing over golf games or in a luxury box at Jordan-Hare or Bryant-Denny, but is it really so much worse than Moore’s clown show?
It’s easy to romanticize ourselves and think of voters as the bedrock of democracy. That’s true in a sense, but our democratic impulses have always been channeled by more responsible institutions like political parties. With limits on donations to the parties themselves, parties have lost the ability to use funding as a means of reward or deterrence for candidates. Candidates like Roy Moore and Donald Trump have not just bypassed the media; they have bypassed the parties themselves in making their pitch to voters. No one is suggesting that sweet old ladies should not be allowed to donate their money to Roy Moore, but parties are needed to mediate their impulses Left unchecked, voters’ tendencies can manifest in emotional reactions that serve no one’s best interests.
And make no mistake, this isn’t the finest hour of Alabama politics. Bradley Byrne is a sharp, capable politician, but his efforts to out-Trump the field may tarnish a solid reputation, especially if he cannot close the deal in next spring’s primary. Tommy Tubberville was a very fine football coach, but he’s never held an elected office in his life. Polling suggests that could be a plus, but lack of experience will begin to take its toll when real issues are discussed. Secretary of State John Merrill is a natural politician with a solid record in his current role. He may prove formidable. If anyone stands a chance to pulling the Moore vote into a more reasonable lane, it’s him. Lastly, state auditor Jim Zeigler and state representative Arnold Mooney fill spots on the primary ballot, but are unlikely to make a dent in the race.
The worst thing that Republicans can do is allow every candidate to believe he has a chance, thereby fragmenting the vote and allowing Moore to skate through to a runoff, or worse, win the primary outright. The worst thing voters can do is vote emotionally. This election is not about “telling it like it is” or “triggering the liberals.” Instead, voters should focus like a laser on the best candidate to defeat a relatively moderate senator in Doug Jones.
If the GOP Establishment were really a thing, Moore ‘s candidacy wouldn’t be dead on arrival; it would have never left the driveway. It turns out that any cowboy with a horse and a toy pistol can run for Senate. Doug Jones has already made it clear that he’s going to label every Republican as an extremist. Aside from being untrue, that’s a risky venture. If every candidate is regarded as crazy, voters may conclude that the craziest candidate is actually the best one. (Republicans are making the same mistake with socialism, by the way) The wisest thing the rest of the field can do is prove Jones wrong. Support President Trump, if you must, but do so with great caution and make the case for policies that will help the people of Alabama. Don’t carry unnecessary water for the White House. Don’t go to war with MSNBC or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Nancy Pelosi. And for heaven’s sake, don’t try to out-crazy Roy Moore.
I’m still naive enough to believe the people of this state want a grown up to represent them. Let’s give them every opportunity to elect one.
Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @yellingstop.