MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama's famed Ten Commandments judge, Roy Moore, has forced a Senate primary runoff with president-backed incumbent Sen. Luther Strange, setting up a September showdown that could be closely watched for clues about Republicans' prospects in 2018 midterm elections.
Moore, who has twice been stripped of chief justice duties for stands over the Ten Commandments and against gay marriage, rode a tide of anti-Washington sentiment and his fame as an icon of the culture wars to lead the first round of voting and secure a runoff spot.
Despite being buoyed by millions of dollars in advertising by a super political action committee tied to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Strange was unable to defeat the firebrand jurist.
"This is a great victory. The attempt by the silk stocking Washington elitists to control the vote of the people of Alabama has failed," Moore said at his victory party in downtown Montgomery, with a copy of the Ten Commandments among the decorations.
The result was not unexpected after polls suggested Moore, with his loyal base, was leading a crowded GOP field in a summer special election where turnout was roughly half that of a normal primary.
While President Donald Trump endorsed Strange, Moore tried to present himself as the better carrier of Trump's outsider appeal.
"There are a probably a number of incumbents on both sides of the aisle who should take notice of another demonstration that voters still want change," said Greg Strimple, a Republican pollster for a political action committee aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan. "The takeaway is that Washington is very unpopular," Strimple said, and said Trump cannot simply "transfer his brand" to candidates who fail to establish their own outsider credentials.
Strange emphasized his Trump endorsement — delivered first via Twitter and then in recorded phone calls to Alabama voters — in the state where Trump remains deeply popular among GOP voters.
"He knows I'm the person in this race who is going to help him make this country great again," Strange said. Strange said the race boiled down to "who is best suited to stand with the people of this country — with our president — to make sure we make America great again."
Moore and Strange will meet in a Sept. 26 runoff. The winner will face Democratic nominee Doug Jones in a December election.
Trump and McConnell had found themselves allies in Alabama in the contentious Republican race for the Senate seat that previously belonged to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The Senate Leadership Fund, which has ties to McConnell and spent millions to try to clear a path for Strange, on Tuesday called Strange "President Trump's number-one ally in this race" and predicted Trump's "support will be decisive as we head into the next phase of the campaign."
Strange, the state's former attorney general, was appointed to the seat in February under Gov. Robert Bentley, who soon resigned in scandal that bled over to Strange. Strange said he did Bentley no favors, but his challengers questioned the ethics of seeking the appointment while investigating the governor.
Moore's stands have won him a loyal following among the state's evangelical voters, but he is a polarizing figure in his own state where his harshest critics have derided him as the "Ayatollah of Alabama," accusing him of intertwining his personal religious beliefs and judicial responsibilities.
Alabama's judicial discipline panel removed Moore as chief justice in 2003 for disobeying a federal judge's order to remove a boulder-sized Ten Commandments monument from the state courthouse. After his re-election, he was permanently suspended last year after telling probate judges they remained under a state court order to deny marriage licenses to gay couples.
Throughout the race, Moore wore his ousters from the bench as something of a badge of honor, telling Republican voters in the blood-red state that they are akin to battle scars for standing up for what he believes.
In the rural community of Gallant in northeast Alabama, Jimmy Wright, 41, showed up early Tuesday to vote for Moore.
"He's the only one who hasn't been talking crap about the others," Wright said. Trump's support for Strange didn't matter to him, he said.
In Montgomery, retired teacher Tommy Goggans said he turned out specifically to try to keep Moore from winning. "He's been kicked out of everything he's done."
On the Democratic side, a former U.S. attorney under the Clinton administration, Jones was backed by former Vice President Joe Biden and some other national party figures. He is perhaps best known for leading the prosecution of two Klansmen for the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four little girls.
Although Alabama has not been represented by a Democrat in the U.S. Senate in 20 years, Jones has said Democrats must not concede the seat without a fight.
"I think there are enough people in the state who are yearning for new leadership and a change," Jones said.
Associated Press Writer Jay Reeves in Gallant, Alabama, and Bill Barrow in Atlanta contributed to this report.