Alabama Republicans had no problem dropping former governor Robert Bentley (R), who resigned this month after pleading guilty to two misdemeanors related to covering up an alleged affair.
That’s because it’s Alabama: There are plenty more electable Republicans to go around. But Bentley’s fall threatens to destabilize one of the state’s most electable Republicans: newly appointed U.S. Sen. Luther Strange.
Actually, it already is. Embattled, suspended Chief Justice Roy Moore announced his candidacy Wednesday to challenge Strange in a special election set for August. It’s safe to say Strange would not be facing a challenge to his new Senate seat (or even an election) if Bentley were still in office.
Let me explain the many ways in which Bentley is coming back to haunt Alabama politics — specifically, anyone tied to him.
If Bentley were still in office, “Big Luther,” as the 6-foot-9 former Tulane basketball player is known, would probably not have to run for election twice in one year. Now, he does.
Bentley appointed Strange, then Alabama’s attorney general, to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s seat in February. Bentley also decided not to hold a special election in August, as some in Alabama suggested the constitution required. Strange would officially run for election for the first time in November 2018.
Kay Ivey (R), the former lieutenant governor, is now governor. And one of her first acts is to hold that special election in August for Sessions’s seat. And at least one candidate sees an opening to knock off Strange early.
Strange has far less baggage than Moore, who was recently suspended for not recognizing legalized same-sex marriage. But Strange will only have had a couple months to establish himself in Washington rather than the year-and-a-half Bentley had given him, essentially eliminating the advantage of incumbency. Other Republicans, like state Sen. Trip Pittman (R) from the Mobile area, could decide to jump in and be potentially much more of a threat.
Speaking of Bentley and Strange’s relationship, Strange has come under fire for that, too. Top Alabama Republicans who helped kick Bentley out the door now see Strange as an extension of the embattled governor.
That’s because Bentley appointed Strange to the Senate right around the time Strange’s office was considering investigating Bentley over whether he used state resources to carry out an alleged affair with his former top aide, Rebekah Mason.
In November (before Donald Trump’s election as president and Sessions’s appointment), the Republican House paused its impeachment proceedings pending Strange’s investigation. Or what they thought was Strange’s investigation. It was suddenly on hold, or perhaps it never existed at all.
“We have never said — and I want to make this clear — we have never said in our office that we are investigating the governor,” Strange said as he was sworn into the Senate seat in February.
After Strange left, however, his old office launched (or relaunched, depending on who you talk to) its investigation into the governor. And the House committee relaunched its impeachment investigation, which produced a damning 3,000-page report that forced Bentley to resign and strike a plea deal with the attorney general’s office days later.
In other words, Bentley appointed a guy who may or may not have been investigating him for something he later pleaded guilty in relation to. The whole thing “looks like collusion,” said state Rep. Ed Henry, the GOP House lawmaker who had started impeaching Bentley.
“It’s a new day in Alabama, but the clouds are not completely cleared,” state auditor Jim Zeigler told U.S. News & World Report. “The appointment of Sen. Strange smells to high heaven.”
After Bentley resigned, his ghost continued to trash Strange. Henry relayed to AL.com that the governor wanted to “get rid” of Strange because of corruption: [Bentley], Henry said, “said, most of it is in the AG’s office, and Luther’s the head of it, and I’m just going to appoint him and get him out of this state.”
Strange may well stay comfy in his Senate seat. If he wins it in August and again in 2018, he could hold it for decades.
But the governor who appointed him is so damaged that even in political death, Bentley is forcing people tied to him to fight political battles on multiple fronts.