Washington (AFP) – Former Alabama chief justice Roy Moore’s victory over President Donald Trump’s preferred candidate in Tuesday’s Senate Republican runoff sent shock waves through Washington, warning the party that conservative fury will remain a disruptive force in US politics.
The Bible-quoting, gun-toting, controversy-courting Moore is now the clear frontrunner against a Democratic candidate in the general election in December to fill the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions, now the attorney general.
Moore beat Luther Strange, the incumbent senator who was appointed to the seat early this year, by about 10 percentage points, a sign that Trump’s substantial popularity with his restless political base may not be transferrable to other political figures.
Perhaps sensing that, Trump quickly swung behind the winner, calling him to offer congratulations.
And several of Trump’s past pro-Strange posts disappeared from Twitter.
“Sounds like a really great guy who ran a fantastic race. He will help to #MAGA!” Trump tweeted Wednesday, referring to his “Make America Great Again” slogan.
The result, though, is an embarrassing setback for Trump that highlights the deep divisions within his party and raises questions about its future direction as the GOP heads toward mid-term elections in 2018.
It also signals that many in the grassroots conservative movement that helped propel Trump to the White House are still fighting against the party leadership during a turbulent period in which Republicans have struggled to deliver on key campaign promises like health care reform.
Although stressing that he remained a Trump supporter, Moore hailed his win as a “conservative victory” for his Deep South state of Alabama.
“We have to return the knowledge of God and the Constitution of the United States to the United States Congress,” he said in his victory speech, repeating his call for an increased religious presence in American public life.
“From that faith we will not be moved,” he added. “We’ve been moved, but we can move back. God can still bring us back.”
Moore, 70, is among the most controversial political figures on the national stage. Often wearing a cowboy hat and prone to riding his horse Sassy to polling stations, he is opinionated, unconcerned about whom he may offend and keen to upend the elite system that rules the US capital.
Months after Trump himself acknowledged that former president Barack Obama was born in the United States, Moore was still questioning the Democrat’s presidential eligibility, telling a conservative conference last December that “my personal belief is that he wasn’t” a natural-born citizen.
In a 2002 legal brief he branded homosexuality an “inherent evil.”
Moore was twice suspended from the Alabama Supreme Court, first for defying an injunction to remove a 10 Commandments stone monument from the Alabama Judicial Building, and then for refusing orders to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
His defiance made him a local hero and that anti-establishment streak was on display Monday during a campaign rally when Moore, eager to refute accusations that he is soft on gun rights, pulled a pistol from his pocket and brandished it before the crowd.
– ‘Mistake’ –
Moore’s candidacy caught the eye of Steve Bannon, Trump’s anti-globalist former chief strategist. Soon he was on the Moore bandwagon, breaking with his former boss and bashing Washington’s elites, alleging that they think Alabama voters are nothing but “a pack of morons.”
At Moore’s victory rally, Bannon bounded on stage to proclaim a “revolution” had begun, one that would reach “state after state after state, people that follow the model of judge Moore, that do not need to raise money from the elites, from the crony capitalists, from the fat cats in Washington, DC, New York City, Silicon Valley.”
Trump had been hoping a victory for 64-year-old Strange could secure him another Senate loyalist who would back his agenda.
But Trump’s conservative base has signaled for months that it is not beholden to Republican leaders in Washington, and they could even break with the president in the Alabama race.
Trump hedged his bets last Friday, suggesting in a campaign appearance in Alabama that he “might have made a mistake” in endorsing Strange over Moore.
“If his opponent wins, I’m going to be here campaigning like hell for him” in the general election, Trump said.