Montgomery Memo: How an Alabama Senator Got His Job May Have Led to His Losing It

Mr. Moore, who brandished a revolver during a rally on Monday, was never able to show off a smoking gun tying Mr. Strange’s appointment to a bargain to slow or stop the investigation that contributed to Mr. Bentley’s downfall.

In the end, though, running in a state still smarting from a tawdry scandal that was tailor-made for social media, he did not need to: Mr. Strange could offer nothing more than his word — and that of a disgraced governor, who did not respond to a message this week seeking comment — that nothing untoward had taken place.

“I think it was a factor that a lot of people in Alabama knew about, and I think that they saw that,” Mr. Moore, now the favorite to win the seat in the special general election on Dec. 12, said in an interview after his victory speech here. “It was a factor. It was one of many.”

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Robert Bentley, the former governor of Alabama, in Montgomery in 2015. Credit Bob Miller for The New York Times

Mr. Bentley, a Baptist deacon when he was elected governor in 2010, was reduced to a punch line in March 2016, when he apologized for “any conversations and behavior that was inappropriate” with one of his closest aides.

Although the governor was circumspect in his public comments, Alabama did not have to imagine much of what had happened: A recording of Mr. Bentley, apparently in conversation with the adviser, included him saying, “If we’re going to do what we did the other day, we’re going to have to start locking the door.”

Mr. Bentley — whose wife, Dianne, had filed for divorce in 2015 — denied the existence of what he termed “a physical relationship,” but his acknowledgment of misconduct led to a number of investigations, including one by Mr. Strange’s office.

On the day impeachment hearings opened, Mr. Bentley pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges, including one connected to the use of campaign funds to pay the aide’s legal bills. Mr. Bentley’s plea agreement included a requirement that he resign his office.

Two months earlier, the governor had appointed Mr. Strange to succeed Senator Jeff Sessions, President Trump’s new attorney general, at least until a special election for the seat was held. Installed in the Senate, with the support of the nation’s top Republicans but on the clock, Mr. Strange was unable to evade the perception that the scandal-scarred Mr. Bentley was his political patron.

Mr. Strange did not mention the controversy over his appointment when he conceded to Mr. Moore, who has a history of inflammatory rhetoric about gay people and Muslims and was, in effect, twice removed from his post as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.

Rather, Mr. Strange hinted at the other, plentiful woes that shadowed his well-financed campaign: the public’s distaste for Washington, conservative outrage over the inability to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and the popular appeal of Mr. Moore, whose unstinting brand of evangelical politics molded him into a persistent, if deeply controversial, presence in Alabama.

“We’re dealing with a political environment that I’ve never had any experience with,” said Mr. Strange, who, despite the vocal support of Mr. Trump, lost Tuesday’s runoff by 10 percentage points. “The political seas, the political winds in this country right now are very hard to navigate. They’re very hard to understand.”

But in a memo to donors on the day of Mr. Strange’s defeat, the Senate Leadership Fund, which allies of Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, control, also noted the taint of the appointment.

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Roy Moore during an election-night rally on Tuesday. He beat Senator Strange in the primary runoff. Credit Scott Olson/Getty Images

“The Bentley shadow still hangs over the state and has hung over Strange’s candidacy as well,” the group’s president, Steven Law, wrote. But Mr. Law, whose group spent more than $10 million to try to protect the incumbent, said the Strange campaign had “correctly tackled” the issue by emphasizing Mr. Strange’s conservative record and by trying to capitalize on the widespread support for Mr. Trump in Alabama.

Other strategists affiliated with Mr. Strange acknowledged that the circumstances of the senator’s appointment were a daily trouble spot, but spent part of this week reckoning with the reality that the campaign never responded in a forceful way. Mr. Strange had stuck to bland statements and tried to remind voters of other corruption cases his prosecutors had brought, even when he had recused himself.

In doing so, longtime observers of Alabama politics said, his campaign might have underestimated the potency of a parochial issue that time did not make fade away.

“A lot of people just didn’t trust Luther Strange,” said Barry Moore, a state representative who, in 2014, was acquitted of all charges in a case from which Mr. Strange had recused himself.

The troubles that trailed Mr. Bentley, Alabama Democrats and Republicans said repeatedly, had been easy for voters to understand, a subject that could and did percolate everywhere from Mobile’s bars to the bedroom communities outside Huntsville.

“Bentley himself was just, I think, another in a series of dominoes that were falling here, where people are just getting tired of having voted for folks in office that end up embarrassing them, that are not what they say,” said Doug Jones, Mr. Moore’s Democratic opponent in December.

Mr. Jones has suggested that he will try to sway voters who remain angry about conduct on Goat Hill, a nickname for the state government complex here.

John H. Merrill, Alabama’s Republican secretary of state, said it was difficult to say whether this week’s outcome reflected “a refresh of politics as usual in Alabama.” But, he said, “I think that a number of our people have used this particular opportunity to express their concern about things they’ve seen go on in Montgomery before, and they want to make sure their voices are heard.”

Whether Alabama’s political class will heed any warning about voters’ wariness about the specter of endemic corruption, if there is one to heed, may be a different matter. On Monday, the day before Mr. Moore raced to his victory, a former majority leader of the Alabama House arrived at the federal courthouse in Montgomery to answer to a charge that he had used campaign money for personal expenses.

He was there to plead guilty.

Continue reading the main storySource: New York Times – Politics

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