It has been nearly 20 years since there has been an open U.S. Senate seat in Alabama. And it could be another 20 years before one is open again.
On the same day that Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions was sworn in as U.S. attorney general, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) appointed one of the state's most-watched Republican politicians to fill Sessions's now-vacant U.S. Senate seat: Luther Strange. Strange, the sitting Alabama attorney general, has been groomed for this job for decades, insiders say, and if he can win election in 2018, he could hold it for decades to come.
But, it's Alabama, so there's always political intrigue afoot. In appointing Strange, 63, to the Senate on Thursday, Bentley has in some ways appointed his political foe. And that has put the embattled governor on the defensive back home.
Here's what you need to know about the next senator from Alabama and how it could change the state's politics:
He had a successful run as attorney general.
After a failed race for lieutenant governor, Strange knocked off the incumbent attorney general in 2010. Shortly after getting elected, Strange helped negotiate a settlement from the 2010 BP oil spill.
But perhaps the highest-profile case under his office was one he was not involved in: the prosecution and eventual jailing of arguably the most powerful man in Alabama, former House speaker Mike Hubbard, who was convicted in June of leveraging his office for financial gain.
Strange recused himself from that case because he had taken money from Hubbard's political action committee, but he was not necessarily impartial. “This is a good day for the rule of law in our state,” Strange said in a statement after Hubbard's conviction.
Like, really tall. A former Tulane basketball player, 6-foot-9 Strange is known around Alabama as “Big Luther,” a nickname he embraced in political ads.
He might have been investigating the governor who appointed him.
Bentley is facing potential impeachment and a criminal investigation after a former top police officer accused him of a sensational affair with a political staffer, raising questions of whether Bentley used state resources to carry it out. (Bentley has denied the affair but apologized for making inappropriate comments to a woman after a lurid conversation was caught on audiotape.)
In November, the GOP-dominated state legislature put impeachment proceedings against Bentley on hold because lawmakers said the attorney general's office was conducting a related investigation. Strange has never confirmed the existence of an investigation, though Alabama insiders note that if there is one, his departure does not preclude the attorney general's office from continuing it.
Strange is a traditional Alabama conservative.
Anti-Obamacare? Check. Anti-regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency? Check. Anti-federal-government regulations, period? Check. Pro-coal industry and pro-gun rights? Check and check.
As attorney general, Strange seized nearly every opportunity to join lawsuits against the Obama administration — from federal guidance over opening up bathrooms to transgender students, to stopping refugee resettlement. He also fought politically charged battles at home aimed at broadening gun rights and limiting gambling on Native American reservations.
All of this has the convenient effect of helping Strange position himself for a run for higher office, insiders say. “He took a lot of stances that would make him popular with primary voters,” said Alabama GOP consultant Brent Buchanan.
Strange has been groomed for this moment.
Alabama Republicans describe Strange as someone the GOP political and business establishments can get behind — and in many cases already have. Strange fits the textbook definition of a traditional Alabama politician: “He's tall, he's got the good-looking family, he's from the right part of the state (the richest part of Birmingham),” Buchanan said. “He has got in zero dust-ups publicly.”
In other words, he's a safe bet and known quantity for the Republican establishment of Alabama.
He's got a mix of both Sessions and Sen. Richard C. Shelby.
Another reason insiders are generally happy with Strange's appointment? He's a mix of Sessions — who is an ace at delivering firebrand messages to the right — and Alabama's senior senator, Shelby (R), who prefers to work behind the scenes to get things done.
His appointment will clear the field for the governor's race.
Bentley is term-limited, which means there will be an open governor's race in 2018 no matter his legal standing. Everyone had expected Strange to be a top candidate, but now the field opens up. And the likeliest beneficiary of that is the head of the Alabama Senate, Sen. Del Marsh (R), who is widely seen as wanting to run for governor. Suspended state chief justice Roy Moore is another possibility.
Strange's 2018 election is not a lock.
Strange will have just a year and some change to settle into the Senate and start preparing for his first campaign as senator. He'll face a primary in June 2018 and an election in November.
There's a possibility that state Sen. Trip Pittman (R) from the Mobile area could run against Strange. And he could present a formidable challenge: If Strange is the establishment Republican, Pittman would be the Trump-esque Republican in the race. Also, Pittman has a bigger frame than even “Big Luther,” if you can imagine that. Must be something in the water in Alabama.