Ex-Coach, Scandal-Ridden Judge Jolt GOP in Pivotal Senate Race

  • Moore, former Auburn football coach Tuberville are wild cards
  • Democratic incumbent Doug Jones is vulnerable in red Alabama

Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) is a blue anomaly in a vastly red state, widely thought of as the most vulnerable incumbent senator in the 2020 election.

But with the leading opponents being a twice-removed judge accused of sexual misconduct with teenage girls and a football coach with name recognition but no clear platform, the question arises of whether Republicans will be able to get out of their own way.

Roy Moore, the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, narrowly lost to Jones after the misconduct allegations surfaced during a special election in 2017 and is running again. Three current elected officials are in the race. And then there’s Tommy Tuberville, a political novice who led Auburn University to an undefeated season in 2004 in a state where college football is so important, it’s considered distasteful to plan your wedding for a Saturday in the fall.

The number of high-profile candidates in the race, which could be key in deciding whether Republicans will maintain control of the Senate, comes as no surprise to Greg Ward, chairman of the Republican Party of Chambers County, in the east-central part of the state. Ward compared the number of Republicans aiming to take on Jones to the number of Democrats aiming to take on President Donald Trump.

But none of them should count out Jones, he said.

“I think he’s gonna be a tough candidate who is gonna put up a real battle for the Republicans,” Ward said. “It is politics, and you never know,” he added. “Who would’ve thought he’d have won last time?”

Roy Moore and ‘Everybody Else’

Joseph Smith, chair of political science at The University of Alabama, said he categorizes the candidates into two groups: Roy Moore and everybody else.

An early poll showed Moore leading the primary race with 27% of respondents support. The Mason-Dixon poll, which surveyed voters via the phone in April, didn’t ask voters about Tuberville.

Moore’s supporters tend to be very loyal to him, viewing him as a distinct kind of Republican, Smith said. But how likely is it that Moore will be able to overcome his scandalous reputation and seize the Republican nomination? Not likely, Smith said.

“I think that enough Republicans probably have come to the conclusion that Roy Moore will not beat Doug Jones, and so that’s going to make people less likely to support him,” he said.

Smith isn’t the only one who thinks Moore, who was twice removed as chief justice for defying federal court orders, will struggle to overcome his baggage. Trump in May urged Moore not to run and was joined by son Donald Trump Jr., who told Moore on Twitter to “ride off into the sunset.” Alabama’s senior senator, Richard Shelby (R), said in June, “I think Alabama can do better than Roy Moore.”

“There is a lot of Roy Moore fatigue,” said Cleve Poole, GOP chairman of Butler County in the southern part of the state. “And I know Roy and like him OK, but I don’t believe him to be electable.”

George Agee, a voter from Tuscaloosa, was once an admirer of Moore and thinks he got a raw deal in the last election. But now isn’t sure he’d vote for him again.

“I don’t even know how true that was, but I feel like it’s gonna hurt him badly,” Agee said, referring to the sexual assault allegations.

The more traditional candidates in the primary include Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.), Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, and state Rep. Arnold Mooney.

“The folks that I talk to generally want to be sure that we get a candidate that can beat Doug Jones,” said Poole. “So that’s the primary consideration.”

Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images
Former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville brings name recognition and little political experience to a crowded Republican primary field in Alabama’s Senate race.

The Political Outsider

Tuberville’s own polling in June showed him leading the Republican primary field, with Moore in second. But the candidate’s status as a non politician poses problems for him that more experienced politicians don’t have.

“The reason we see people in politics succeed more is because they’ve run campaigns,” said Ryan Williamson, assistant professor of political science at Auburn. “They know what it takes to build an effective organization. They know what it takes to win votes, say the right thing at the right time. Tuberville doesn’t necessarily have that same skill set.”

But his status as an outsider could also benefit him. In a state where Trump, who ran largely as an outsider against career politician Hillary Clinton, won by 28 percentage points in 2016, Tuberville’s inexperience could be a plus.

Auburn resident Zach Bowman said in an interview he’s supporting Tuberville. He said he’s been influenced by what he called the “Trump effect.”

“I am tired that we have one permanent political class, and it’s always the same people for the same things that we’re choosing from,” Bowman said. “And Tuberville is not part of that established political class.”

But can he gain enough traction outside of Auburn? Some aren’t convinced.

“His name recognition is awfully high because, heck, he’s Tommy Tuberville and he coached at Auburn,” Ward said. “The problem is, when I talk politics to people, I’ve not heard one person mention his name as somebody they were thinking about voting for in that race. Even rabid Auburn fans.”

Career Politicians

Byrne and Merrill are two veteran politicians who have campaigned before – and won.

They are the frontrunners right now, Williamson said. Merrill ran a successful statewide campaign and has been a visible, proactive candidate from his perch as secretary of state, he said. And Byrne has a strong voter base in the Mobile area in southern Alabama.

It’s a toss up, at this point, who would win in a runoff, Williamson said.

“We know in Alabama that people don’t like career politicians,” he said. “They prefer people who can pitch themselves as Washington outsiders, which would maybe lead to better prospects for Merrill, but in political science we know that people with greater experience typically fair better, and so I think Byrne has the experience edge from that perspective.”

Mooney, a state representative from the Birmingham metro area, is being backed by the Senate Conservatives Fund, a super political action committee that has clashed with GOP leaders in the past. His campaign website says, “Alabamians want a conservative & an outsider.”

It’s still early, and more candidates could enter the race. The primary will be held March 3, 2020.

“The only person who can tell you for certain what’s gonna happen in politics is somebody who’s self deluded,” Ward said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Elizabeth Elkin in Washington at eelkin@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jodie Morris at jmorris@bgov.com; Bernie Kohn at bkohn@bloomberglaw.com; Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com