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The Football Rivalry That Could Decide the Alabama Senate Race

At first glance, Alabama Senator Luther Strange has everything going for him headed into the special election for his seat. Strange, who filled the Senate vacancy left by Jeff Sessions’ appointment to serve as attorney general, enjoys the full financial support of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. He’s been endorsed by Richard Shelby, the state’s senior senator and former chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. And as a former state attorney general, Strange has positioned himself as a law-and-order candidate at a particularly scandal-rich moment for a state that has seen its share.

But there’s someone who could make life complicated for Strange, and it’s not an actual candidate. Though almost a dozen Republicans filed to run in the Republican primary and nearly that number signed up on the Democratic side, the biggest threat to Strange’s bid is a burly man whose love of Auburn football is matched only by his grudge against Strange, who draws support from University of Alabama territory.

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Jimmy Rane is the chairman and CEO of the Great Southern Wood Preserving lumber company, whose signature product—YellaWood pressure-treated pine—is known to homebuilders everywhere. Rane’s lumber colossus operates in 27 states and over a dozen countries with annual revenues of $ 700 million, which explains why Rane, 69, is considered Alabama’s wealthiest citizen, according to Forbes. Rane is no recluse though. Rane is best known for a series of short web videos starring himself as the “Yella Fella,” a wandering hero fighting bandits in a lemon-yellow cowboy outfit. The acting isn’t quite Oscar quality, but Rane himself stands out as a sort of poor man’s Jimmy Stewart.

Rane is about to play a different role in the ongoing gothic drama that is Alabama politics.

The stakes are high, maybe not as bitter as the rivalry between the University of Alabama and Auburn, but close. Even in a year of unusually tight special elections brought about by Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominations, the 2017 special election for Alabama’s Senate seat is unique. The dynamic is far from simply Republican versus Democrat. It’s not even hard-line conservative Republicans versus the party’s dwindling moderate wing. This race comes down to the opposing factions in a corruption trial that last year took down the state’s speaker of the House. The man leading the case was Strange, the state’s attorney general. Strange pulled a number of the state’s most prominent businessmen—including Rane—into the trial in unflattering ways, and that didn’t sit well with a class of high-level executives who are accustomed to calling the shots from behind the scenes. So when Strange geared up to win the seat he had been appointed to, speculation about Rane’s desire for payback started in earnest.

At first, there was talk Rane would run himself. He knocked those rumors down. Then his most likely preferred candidate begged off. But no one thinks Rane, with his deep pockets and deeper well of anger at Strange, will sit on the sidelines. While the NRSC will bring its war chest in defense of Strange, the betting money says Rane, and a like-minded cadre of other CEOs, will put together a formidable bankroll to block Strange.

“I believe there are people out there that are ready to set up a super PAC and lay out the message that it’s best for Alabama to pick its own senator,” says Del Marsh, the Alabama Senate president pro tempore who had been weighing a Senate bid himself until recently. “Jimmy Rane comes to the front of the list. … He’s going to probably … create some sort of a super PAC to do what he thinks needs to be done to make sure the right person was elected in the state of Alabama.”

Rane declined to speak about the race when asked, but he did put out a statement on May 17 that confirmed he’s going to be a factor in deciding the outcome of the primary, scheduled for August 25.

“While I have decided not to run, I will continue to be an advocate for policies that matter most to the people of Alabama and to support leaders focused on education, fiscal responsibility, job growth, and the success of our state,” Rane said.

He didn’t mention Strange, but he didn’t have to. Everyone knows that’s what’s driving him.

***

The root of one of the biggest feuds in Alabama politics goes back to a decision to bring corruption charges against one of the most powerful politicians the state has ever seen. Mike Hubbard, the former Alabama House speaker, was a driving force behind a massive wave of GOP wins in 2010. Now, only four years later, Hubbard was being accused, by another Republican, no less, of soliciting lobbyists and using his position as the leader of the Alabama Republican Party to help businesses he was linked to. The man who brought the ethics case was Luther Strange, known as “Big Luther” for his imposing 6-foot-9 frame.

During the trial, Jimmy Rane, who is friends with Hubbard, was forced to testify alongside a number of Alabama political leaders, including former Alabama Governor Bob Riley, and businessmen such as Will Brooke, a founder of the Alabama-based Harbert Management Corporation. The prosecution asserted that Hubbard had solicited these men as investors in his business while he was House speaker. The prosecution argued that that was a crime, as Rane and the other businessmen had lobbyists on their payroll.

“Jimmy Rane was listed in one of the counts of corruption that Luther Strange’s office investigated on him,” Alabama Republican strategist Chris Brown said. “This is like a revenge thing. He hates Luther because he drug his name through the mud. And that was one of the counts that, I believe, Mike Hubbard was acquitted on, but it’s like Jimmy Rane is a wealthy guy, well-known. And Luther, you know, dirted [sic] him. Dragged him in front of the court and made him testify.”

Hubbard was ultimately convicted of 12 felony ethics violations and sentenced to four years in prison, with an additional eight years on probation.

Months after Hubbard was sent to prison, the pieces began to fall into place for some kind of score settling. Before stepping down in the midst of a sex scandal, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley had picked Strange to serve the rest of Sessions’ term until a special election could be held. The appointment frustrated critics, who saw Strange as linking himself too closely to Bentley in exchange for personal political gain. Strange had previously moved to slow down impeachment proceedings against the governor prior to being appointed to the Senate. Strange has denied any kind of pay for play.

To Hubbard allies and Strange critics, though, Strange’s campaign is as good a chance as any to exact revenge.

“The Hubbard trial is their driving force for Luther,” a keyed-in Republican with ties to Marsh and Rane said. “And it’s not just the Hubbard [trial]. It’s also that Luther went so far and wide in terms of the business community in who he pulled into that trial. There was the former governor, Riley. I mean, there is a large group of folks … those tentacles went so far that I think many of them saw it as unnecessary.”

There’s a particularly Alabamian wrinkle to the feud, and the demarcation line runs roughly along college lines. In Alabama, that means only two schools: the University of Alabama and Auburn University. It’s more than just about bragging rights on the football field, though that’s a big part of it. It’s cultural. Alabama is considered the stodgier, more football-centric school. Auburn, which is a national powerhouse on the football field as well, fancies itself a little more bookish and likes to tout its engineering program. People joke about “mixed marriage” when an Auburn grad weds an Alabama alum. And it bleeds over into politics. When former Auburn University coach Tommy Tuberville toyed with running for governor earlier in the year, the popular campaign newsletter Daily Kos noted that one hurdle for him is that Alabama fans “far outnumber Auburn’s” in the state.

“The rivalry between the Crimson Tide and the Tigers is a very serious matter, and it’s very possible that plenty of Bama supporters won’t back someone so identified with their hated foes,” the newsletter noted in February.

Marsh, Rane and even Hubbard have strong ties to Auburn University. Harbert, Rane and Governor Kay Ivey (who moved up the special election schedule, some say, to spite Strange) all sit on the board of trustees. Rane has given $ 12 million to the school. Buildings at the school were named after Hubbard. Marsh, too, is a Tiger alumnus.

On the other side is the University of Alabama contingent. Strange went to Tulane University, but his roots run deep in the northwestern part of the state, where the Crimson Tide play. He was born in nearby Birmingham and later practiced law there. When he ran for attorney general, Strange’s strongest support came in Jefferson County. Senator Shelby, a Strange ally, got his undergraduate degree from the University of Alabama and represented the 7th Congressional District—which includes the University of Alabama—in Congress.

That rivalry isn’t lost among the political players in the Strange or Marsh-Rane camp.

“There’s certainly a dynamic there,” the Republican connected to the business community told me.

***

If Marsh had chosen to run, there wouldn’t be much doubt about where Rane’s money would go. Businessman? Check. Auburn fanatic? Check. Strange antagonist? Check. But without the Senate pro tem in the race, there’s considerably more doubt about the ultimate beneficiary.

Rane, according to a Republican with close ties to both Marsh and allied business leaders, was likely to spend $ 1 million to $ 2 million, or maybe more, if Marsh ran. “My understanding is that [Marsh] was in for $ 1 [million] and Harbert was in for $ 1 [million] and if he got in, they, especially Rane, were interested in increasing that number or were increasing that number because of their affinity for Del,” the Republican said. “My understanding has been that regardless of whether or not Del ran, Rane is still going to put his mark on this campaign with negative ads and talking to some of the other candidates they believe [are] a factor.”

Will Rane restrict himself to negative ads about Strange, or will he actually get behind one of the other leading Republicans? The two other most prominent candidates in the Republican primary field: Representative Mo Brooks and former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore. Neither is regarded as palatable to the business community-aligned Republicans who might have supported Marsh or Strange. They both are firebrands with strong ties to the conservative base and a history of provocative statements. So it’s unlikely that Rane would pick either candidate in the primary. If either Brooks or Moore made it to the expected Republican primary runoff and defeated Strange, Senate Republican leadership would have to face the serious prospect of a new senator who doesn’t vote reliably with the party, as Strange does, and instead is more of a provocateur.

Strange’s allies are ready for a fight to protect the senator. In a brief interview at the Capitol, I asked Shelby about his plans to support Strange and the prospect of Rane or an anti-incumbent outside group like the Club for Growth pouring in money to defeat him. Shelby said he has already helped fundraise for Strange and planned to help him more. “I’ll help him where I can,” Shelby said.

As for the looming prospect of a PAC wearing a big yellow hat, Shelby shrugged.

“Oh, I don’t know what they’ll do,” Shelby said. “Luther should win that race. He has to win it on the ballot.”

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