(Dec. 2) The much-watched race for U.S. Senate in Alabama just got a bit less interesting but also a bit safer for Republican chances of victory.

Republican Secretary of State John Merrill dropped out of the fiercely contested primary. Merrill announced on Sunday that he is withdrawing because his “path to victory” largely disappeared once Jeff Sessions, former senator and U.S. attorney general, entered the race. His assessment of how Sessions affected his chances is almost surely correct. Merrill’s familiarity with voters and his fundraising potential trailed four other candidates who have stratospheric statewide name identification: Sessions, congressman and former gubernatorial candidate Bradley Byrne, former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville, and former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore.

Merrill’s exit lets national Republicans breathe a little easier because it reduces the chances for the controversial Moore to qualify for a two-man Republican primary runoff. Moore lost in the 2017 special election to Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, whom the primary winner will face in next November’s general election. In a multi-candidate first-round primary, Moore has both a relatively high “floor” of voting percentage, below which he will not fall. But he also has also a relatively low “ceiling” above which he will not rise. This means that the more conventional candidates there are in the race splitting the non-Moore vote, the more likely it is that Moore reaches a runoff.

Once two candidates reach a runoff, just about anything could happen. As most analysts rightly believe that Jones’s thin chances for reelection in the conservative state rise substantially if Moore is again the GOP nominee, anything that keeps Moore from the runoff also helps chances for an eventual Republican win.

Nonetheless, Merrill’s withdrawal is unfortunate in another sense. Merrill is deservedly a rising star in Alabama politics. He is an indefatigable and tremendously engaging campaigner, and he has done an excellent job as Alabama’s secretary of state. He has been a conservative reformer across the board, while efficiently running his office with fewer employees than his predecessor….

[The full column is here.]



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