MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Ousted Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore is trying to play usurper to deep-pocketed Republican forces after making a runoff with incumbent Sen. Luther Strange in the state's Senate primary.
Getting to the runoff is a sweet win for Moore, who was twice stripped of his chief justice duties — for refusing to remove a biblical monument he installed in a state judiciary building and for resisting federal gay marriage rulings.
And Moore is relishing his opportunity to repudiate what he calls "silk-stocking Washington elitists" as he heads into another clash between the GOP establishment and the party's conservative populist wing.
"They've got a clear choice in this coming election, somebody who represents Alabama values or somebody who represents Washington values. If they want to move this country forward and stop the stagnation in the U.S. Senate, they'll vote for me," Moore told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Strange's campaign got the endorsement of President Donald Trump and benefited from millions of dollars in advertising by a super political action committee tied to McConnell. But he trailed Moore, who rode his horse to his local polling station on Tuesday, by about 6 percentage points, or about 25,000 votes in the low-turnout special election for the seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The winner of the Sept. 26 runoff will advance to a December contest against Democratic nominee Doug Jones, a former federal prosecutor best known for winning convictions of two Klansmen in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four little girls.
Trump tweeted his support for Strange, who was appointed to the Senate seat in February, and recorded a Monday night robo-call to Alabama voters. But Moore claimed he better represents Trump's outsider appeal in a state where the president remains deeply popular among GOP voters.
And after the results were in, Trump tweeted congratulations to both top finishers. "Exciting race!" Trump wrote.
Moore has a loyal following among the state's evangelical voters, but also cuts a polarizing figure. His harshest critics have called him the "Ayatollah of Alabama" and accused him of putting his personal religious beliefs ahead of his judicial responsibilities.
The outspoken chief justice left the bench to run for Senate after he was suspended from the rest of his term last year by a judicial discipline panel.
The Senate Leadership Fund spent millions on Strange and is likely to continue that support in the runoff. Ever since a series of messy Republican primaries led to losses of winnable Senate races in 2010 and 2012, Republicans led by McConnell of Kentucky have worked aggressively to defeat fringe primary candidates in Senate races.
Both Strange and the PAC emphasized the president's endorsement ahead of the Sept. 26 runoff, although Trump's tweet later Wednesday focused more on his own impact: "Wow, Senator Luther Strange picked up a lot of additional support since my endorsement."
"Now the battle begins," Strange said Tuesday night. "Really, what it all boils down to is who is best suited to stand with the people of this country — with our president — to make sure we make America great again. The stakes are high. This election five weeks from now, I need y'all to go back to the polls."
Senate Leadership Fund President and CEO Steven Law congratulated Strange for "closing the gap in the final week and positioning himself well for the runoff."
"We are proud to have strongly supported President Trump's number-one ally in this race, and we believe the President's support will be decisive as we head into the next phase of this campaign, which Senator Strange will win in September." Law said.
The big question now is which candidate can collect the votes of the third-place finisher, U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks.
"The book on Moore has been that he has a high floor and a low ceiling," political consultant David Mowery said. "It's anybody's ball game, but with an advantage to Strange because of the money."
Associated Press Writer Jay Reeves in Gallant, Alabama, and Bill Barrow in Atlanta contributed to this report.