BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Moments after he secured a runoff spot in his race for a full term in Washington, Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.) commented for the first time on President Trump’s remarks that blamed “the alt-left” for violence in Charlottesville. It was good, said Strange, that Attorney General Jeff Sessions was probing the violence. But Trump’s latest reaction was news to him.
“I wasn’t honestly able to watch everything because I was pretty busy today,” said Strange to reporters at his election night party. “But the president has condemned, and I certainly have condemned, the racist violence in Charlottesville. As a former attorney general, I hope they put everybody under the jail.”
Strange had been saying exactly that since Trump’s first response to the Charlottesville tragedy, which ended with a man apparently motivated by racist beliefs plowing his car into a crowd of protesters, killing 32-year-old left-wing activist Heather Heyer. He’d used his election night speech to thank Trump for supporting him, support that had been the driving message of his tough campaign.
As Republicans in the rest of the country agonized over how to respond to Trump, Alabama’s race seemed to speed into the future — several news cycles from now, when Democrats and Republicans had largely returned to their bunkers.
Conservative voters varied between wishing the president had responded differently to Charlottesville and blaming the media for creating furor out of tragedy. Liberal voters, in between vigils, nominated a civil rights lawyer for the Senate race and lauded the covering up of Birmingham’s major Confederate memorial.
The lawyer, Doug Jones, celebrated a Tuesday night victory by lunging at Trump over his response to Charlottesville. At his party, held in a restaurant near the city’s Five Points neighborhood, several supporters wore T-shirts that celebrated Jones’s successful prosecution of Klansmen who in 1964 had bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church.
Jones, who chaired the board of the city’s civil rights museum before running for Senate, ran his race — on the cheap — as a defiantly liberal Democrat. Tuesday clarified that pitch, with Jones taking several opportunities to condemn the president’s Charlottesville response as a sop to racists.
“Fifteen years ago, I actually went up against the Klan, and we won,” Jones told supporters after his primary win was official. “I thought we’d gotten past that. But we obviously haven’t.”
Jones’s voters felt the same way. Wanda Bryant, 59, said she was utterly unsurprised when Trump went back on his statement about the shame of white supremacists to take a whack at the “alt-left,” a term coined by conservatives to brand liberal protesters. “That’s just who he is,” she said. “If you pay attention, it doesn’t surprise you.”
Kathy Smith, 60, voted shortly after Strange did at the senator’s suburban polling place, which happened to be a special-needs facility that her daughter used. She voted for Jones thinking it would send a message but was not confident he would win.
“We came too far to slide back into craziness,” she said. “I feel like things are going too fast in that direction. I’ve been here too long; I don’t have any confidence in these Republicans to stop it.”
Republican voters unsurprisingly disagreed, even when they did not defend Trump’s comments. Laura Payne, who had been a Trump delegate to the 2016 Republican National Convention, cast a vote for Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), bucking Trump’s endorsement of Strange. She supported the president regardless, she said, and was frustrated at the story obscured by his comments — the street brawls over whether to take down symbols of the Confederacy.
“We shouldn’t take our statues down; that’s just stupid,” said Payne. “They should be focused on peaceful solutions instead of anger.”
In more than a dozen voters interviews on Election Day, no Republican primary voter said that Trump had intentionally defended white nationalists, though some voters were quick to move off the subject. There was little evidence that the controversy would last — and little that it would hurt Strange if it did.
One Republican strategist who worked to help Strange though the primary said that the short-term effect of the comments would be a 2-point drop in Trump’s support from all voters but a 10-point spike in support from Republicans.