Luther Strange spent a significant portion of his life wanting to be a United States Senator. Now, after holding the coveted title for less than a year, he has just a few short months left on the job.
The short tenure of Strange will be studied in Alabama political-science departments for years to come. His fall from grace was one few would have predicted.
“Big Luther,” just a few short years ago, was considered untouchable on the Alabama scene. More than just a moniker, the 6’9” attorney clobbered an incumbent Attorney General in 2010, winning in the primary by more than 20 points. He sought to build a reputation as Montgomery’s reformer, who would clean up a corrupt town. It was a reputation that started to catch on. A number of high profile cases raised his national profile, and he even served as chairman of the Republican Attorneys General Association for two years.
Then, the shine began to come off Strange. An odd, twisting prosecution of Speaker Mike Hubbard, a political rival, raised eyebrows at numerous points. Still, it was Strange’s handling of the investigation into disgraced then-Governor Robert Bentley that ultimately began a downward spiral.
We wrote earlier this year that Bentley’s downfall was “fueled” by dark money. When Luther Strange instructed the legislature in Alabama to stop an investigation into Bentley’s ethics violations, usage of dark money groups to pay staff, and spending of government funds for personal gain, the public was outraged.
In turn, Bentley appointed Luther Strange as the US Senator to fill the spot vacated by Jeff Sessions when he was appointed by Donald Trump as Attorney General. While Take Back Our Republic does not take positions on elections (the reason I write this after Strange is no longer a candidate), our Executive Director told Time Magazine what many were hearing without passing judgment.
“The first thing you hear anytime the race comes up with someone who is not political is, ‘Oh, well, Strange cut a deal with the governor,’” says John Pudner, the executive director of the Alabama-based conservative action group Take Back Our Republic. “Fair or not, it seems to me that might be the difference in the end.”
The appearance that he refused to investigate corruption in exchange for a Senate seat damaged the former rising star even more.
Still, Strange went into the election with some advantages. He was an incumbent, would eventually gain the support of the highly popular (in Alabama) President Trump.. The consensus was that money would be needed to reboot his public image, but that he remained a viable candidate.
However, it was that money that was ultimately his undoing. Opposition to the proverbial “Establishment” runs deep in Alabama, and Strange needed to cozy up to the powers-that-be in order to receive needed funding. And, it was Mitch McConnell that came through.
Because of the campaign finance system, Strange could only get the funding needed from McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund. Most estimates place the amount spent by that group in the race at over $9 million. According to Open Secrets, that number is actually closer to $8 million they have documented.
Whatever the number, the major spending to promote Strange created the impression that Strange was beholden to big money and beholden to McConnell. That idea, of being beholden, and the question of “why is re-electing Luther Strange so important to Mitch McConnell?” only drove voters further to the eventual nominee.
A prominent Democrat, Jere Beasley, even came out for Strange’s opponent saying that the incumbent was “owned by special interests.” That charge seemed to be the consensus among voters despite the barrage of attacks levied against the challengers. Mo Brooks, a congressman from North Alabama and the 3rd place finisher, saw roughly $1.5 million spent against him by the Senate Leadership Fund. The eventual nominee was attacked with a whopping $4.5 million by the group. By comparison, it spent only $2.1 million promoting Strange.
Strange is clearly no innocent bystander. At the very least, numerous actions he took had the appearance of corruption. However, his fall from grace was aided by a flawed campaign finance system that only lent itself to an increasingly unfavorable opinion of the incumbent. He was a candidate who appeared to be owned because of the incredible money being spent, and he was also a candidate who was not in control of his own message given the fact that outside spending more-than-doubled his own.
This defeat does show that people can have power over money, as Alabamians made it clear they would not tolerate the seat being bought, but, like GA-6 earlier this year, it should offer an opportunity for a broader discussion of money in politics.
Written by Justin Hill, Take Back Our Republic