WASHINGTON • US President Donald Trump's pick in the Alabama Republican Senate run-off has crashed to defeat against a populist former judge, likely sending shock waves through establishment Washington and denting the President's influence over his restless political base.
The result on Tuesday is an embarrassing setback for Mr Trump that highlights the deep divisions within his party and raises questions about its future direction as the GOP heads towards mid-term elections next year.
It also signals that many in the grassroots conservative movement that helped propel Mr Trump to the White House are still fighting against the party leadership and its grip on Washington politics during a turbulent period in which Republicans have struggled to deliver on key campaign promises like healthcare reform.
With all 67 counties reporting, former Alabama state chief justice Roy Moore led incumbent Luther Strange by 54.9 per cent to 45.1 per cent. Mr Strange was appointed to the US Senate earlier this year to fill the seat vacated by Mr Jeff Sessions, whom Mr Trump picked to be his Attorney-General.
Mr Moore hailed his win as a "conservative victory" for his state. "Because of you, tonight, the establishment has been DEFEATED in Alabama!" he posted on Twitter.
But Mr Moore, 70, said he would still back the President. "Don't let anybody in the press think that because he supported my opponent, I do not support him and support his agenda," he said.
STILL THE PRESIDENT'S MAN
Don't let anybody in the press think that because he supported my opponent, I do not support him and support his agenda.
ALABAMA REPUBLICAN U.S. SENATE CANDIDATE ROY MOORE, pledging his loyalty to President Donald Trump even though Mr Trump had backed his opponent.
Mr Moore now becomes the heavy favourite in Alabama's special election to be held in December against Democratic nominee Doug Jones. Alabama has not elected a Democrat to the Senate in a quarter of a century, so Mr Moore is expected to become the state's next senator.
Mr Trump offered his own congratulations to Mr Moore, urging him in a tweet to "WIN in Dec!"
Mr Trump was hoping to win a loyalist in Mr Strange, 64, who has openly backed his agenda.
Nevertheless, he hedged his bets last Friday, suggesting in a campaign appearance in Alabama that he "might have made a mistake" in endorsing Mr Strange over Mr Moore.
In a political twist, the race was the stage for a proxy war of sorts between Mr Trump and his recently ousted White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who backed Mr Moore. Former vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin has also stumped for Mr Moore, while Vice-President Mike Pence made a futile election eve campaign appearance with Mr Strange.
Mr Moore had threatened to upend the Republican Party should he win the race, and branded his opponent an "establishment lackey" to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He is a fierce enemy of Mr McConnell, accusing him of rejecting conservative efforts to pull the agenda further to the right.
A political action committee affiliated with Mr McConnell pumped around US$10 million (S$14 million) into support for Mr Strange, prompting scorn from Mr Bannon.
"You're going to see it state after state after state, people that follow the model of judge Moore, that do not need to raise money from the elites, from the crony capitalists, from the fat cats in Washington, DC, New York City, Silicon Valley," he told Moore supporters at a victory rally in Alabama.
Mr Moore was twice suspended from the Alabama Supreme Court for refusing to issue marriage licences to same-sex couples and fighting against orders to remove a 10 Commandments monument from the courthouse.
His defiance made him a local hero to many, and that anti-establishment streak was on display on Monday, when Mr Moore, wearing a cowboy hat and vest, pulled a small pistol from his pocket and brandished it briefly before the crowd to show his support for gun rights.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, NYTIMES