HOMEWOOD, Ala. (AP) — The Republican race for Jeff Sessions' old Senate seat in Alabama will test which brand of conservatism voters prefer: The polished incumbent backed by the D.C. establishment or firebrand hard-liners seeking an upset in the closely watched race.
Incumbent Alabama Sen. Luther Strange was temporarily appointed to the Senate seat in February and is backed by a super political action committee tied to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. His challengers in the Aug. 15 primary include Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, and former state Chief Justice Roy Moore, who was twice removed from his duties after losing battles on gay marriage and the public display of the Ten Commandments.
"I'm running because I think it's time to bring some common-sense conservative solutions to our country. A lot of people talk about being conservative. I'm running on a conservative record, actually taking on difficult problems," Strange told a Republican club in a Birmingham suburb.
In campaign stops across the state, Strange touts his own hard-line conservative credentials, including suing former President Barack Obama's administration over a federal health care law requirement that an Alabama-based Catholic broadcaster provide contraceptive coverage. As the state's attorney general, he also challenged President Barack Obama administration's Clean Power Plan and joined with other Senate Republicans to force a vote on the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.
Republicans led by McConnell of Kentucky have worked aggressively to defeat fringe candidates in GOP Senate primaries ever since a series of messy primaries led to losing general election Senate races in 2010 and 2012.
"Luther Strange is the only candidate who can be trusted to fight for President Trump's agenda in the U.S. Senate," said Chris Pack, a spokesman for the super PAC Senate Leadership Fund.
The bankrolling has allowed advertisements on behalf of Strange to dominate airwaves ahead of the primary, part of it in blistering ads accusing Brooks of lukewarm support of President Donald Trump. It has become a rallying cry by opponents against Strange in a race that has become all about hatred of the so-called Washington swamp.
Brooks said the Washington "swamp critters" were putting millions of dollars behind Strange, their favored candidate. "The swamp is fighting back," Brooks said.
Strange brushes off the criticism as "silly" — noting that he has been in office for only a few months.
Joe Akin, a 79-year-old engineer and industrial designer, said he likes Moore's values but wondered if he had "gone too far" to be effective in Washington.
"I'd say it's down to Moore and Strange," he said. "I'm for Strange for his stances and his way of presenting himself," Akin said.
Strange, then attorney general, was appointed to Sessions' seat in February by then-Gov. Robert Bentley, who resigned two months later amid fallout from an alleged affair with a top staffer.
Bentley had planned his own run for Senate in 2018, but when he stepped down, the state's new governor, Kay Ivey, moved the special election to this year, setting off a demolition derby among Republican contenders.
Strange's challengers said the appointment was tainted because Strange's office was in charge of investigating the accusations against Bentley. Strange said he did Bentley no favors.
The 6-foot-9 (2-meter) Strange, sometimes called Big Luther, attended Tulane University on a basketball scholarship and graduated from Tulane Law School. If Washington is a swamp, Strange already spent some time swimming in it. He worked as a lobbyist for a number of years, including heading governmental relations for Sonat Offshore, an offshore oil and gas drilling company.
He ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 2006 and won the office of attorney general in 2010 and 2014.
As attorney general, Strange had to navigate a gauntlet of politically prickly situations that alienated him from a number of powerful political figures in Alabama. He angered casino owners when he attempted to shut down electronic bingo operations, arguing the slot-machine lookalikes were against state law.
His office's public corruption unit opened an investigation into whether the state's powerful Republican house speaker had abused his office. Strange recused himself at the start of the probe since he had used the speaker's printing company for his campaign materials. The investigation ended with the speaker's conviction on ethics charges in a trial that saw testimony from the state's former Republican governor and influential GOP donors.
"If there's anybody willing to take on the status quo or powerful forces, it's been me," Strange said.