Senator Luther Strange and former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore faced off tonight in the only debate before the runoff election for the GOP nomination next Tuesday to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the U.S. Senate.
The debate – held without a moderator – focused largely on who would best support and advocate for President Trump’s agenda in the U.S. Senate.
Strange made no secret that he is endorsed by President Trump, and talked about his “close personal friendship” to a president that is broadly popular among Alabamans.
Moore, the twice-removed former Alabama Supreme Court Justice, tried to paint Strange – who worked as a lobbyist in the nation's capital for many years - as a D.C. insider, and a creature of the “swamp.”
President Trump is set to visit the state tomorrow and will hold a rally in support of Strange.
Here are five moments that mattered in tonight’s fiery debate.
Who’s Trump’s Man?
“The first question is, who does the president support?” Strange said in his opening remarks, “The president supports me.”
Right off the bat, Strange endeared himself to the man in the Oval Office, heaping praise on him and talking up their shared background, in a moment that set the tone for how Strange approached the debate.
“We've developed a close personal friendship. We both come from the same background, the same mission, the same motivation. To make this country great again,” Strange said.
Moore instead chose to frame the race as a battle between the outsiders and the Washington elite.
“Will an elitist Washington establishment with unlimited millions of dollars, and special money be able to control the people of Alabama?” Moore asked, “Will false, malicious radio, TV and internet advertising take the place of honest and open debate in our political arena? I think not.”
'Manipulated' by McConnell
Moore, who expressed support for numerous Trump administration policies like the border wall and a ban on transgender individuals serving in the U.S. military, said that Trump’s support of Strange was a result of influence from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is supporting the incumbent’s campaign.
“The problem is President Trump's being cut off in his office. He's being redirected by people like McConnell who do not support his agenda,” Moore said.
Strange shot back, calling Moore’s attack “insulting.”
“You just said that he was being manipulated by Mitch McConnell. I met Mitch McConnell about six or seven months ago,” Strange said. “To suggest that the President of the United States, the head of the free world, a man who is changing the world is being manipulated by Mitch McConnell is insulting to the president,” Strange said.
Strange’s controversial appointment
Moore also attacked Strange for what has been a major issue in the race, how Strange became a United States Senator.
Strange, who was the Alabama Attorney General prior to his appointment, was tapped for the seat by then-Gov. Robert Bentley, who was later forced to resign over a sex scandal involving a member of his staff. Strange was, at the time, the very man leading the investigation into Bentley’s misconduct, raising questions about the appropriateness of Bentley’s appointment of Strange to Sessions senate seat.
“What's the truth?” Moore asked Strange directly across the stage, “Did you sir, have Robert Bentley, the former governor who appointed you to the Senate, under investigation while you were applying for that appointment?”
Strange did not directly respond to the question, instead dismissing the charge as a personal attack.
“I didn't hear anything about the issues or any solutions or anything he's going to do to help the president,” Strange responded.
Moore: Strange ‘caved’ on same-sex marriage ruling
Moore, who was suspended from the Alabama Supreme Court in 2016 after refusing to enforce the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, accused his opponent of not standing up to the high court’s ruling.
“As soon as Obergefell came down he caved. He did not stand,” Moore said.
Earlier in the debate, Strange pointed to his record of opposing various requirements in the Affordable Care Act that affected religious organizations who objected to portions of the law.
“Our religious liberty was threatened by the Obama administration as part of the Obamacare law,” Strange said. “I was in the courtroom when that law was, I think unjustly, held constitutional.”
Who’s the real swamp dweller?
Both candidates accused each other of being nothing but career insiders, either as lobbyists or elected officials.
Moore invoked President Trump when he called Strange a “professional lobbyist” that only represents “special interests.”
“President Trump had it right when he ran, he said he was going to get rid of lobbyists, you don’t get rid of lobbyists in the swamp by sending one to the United States Senate,” Moore said.
Strange again leaned on the president’s endorsement.
“What I’m here to do is talk about the issues. That’s why the president endorsed me,” Strange said.