Head start: Leading special-election candidate appointed to replace Sessions

As of 11:55 pm ET last night, the Senate had only 99 members and the Republican advantage had dropped to 51-48. Alabama governor Robert Bentley filled the gap this morning as expected, appointing the state’s Attorney General to replace Jeff Sessions, who resigned last night to take his new office as US Attorney General. Luther Strange had already indicated he’d run for the seat vacated by Sessions in the upcoming special election:

Alabama’s governor on Thursday named state Attorney General Luther Strange to the U.S. Senate seat left empty by Jeff Sessions.

Strange will replace Sessions, whose selection as U.S. attorney general by President Donald Trump was confirmed Wednesday. Strange, a 63-year-old lawyer and former Washington lobbyist, has been the state’s attorney general since 2011. …

Strange will serve until an election is held to fill the seat for the remainder of Sessions’ term, which ends in January of 2020. Bentley has said that election will be held in 2018 though Alabama law doesn’t specify exactly when next year.

In elevating Strange to the U.S. Senate, Bentley also will have the authority to appoint a state attorney general to fulfill the remainder of Strange’s term.

In effect, Strange gets a head start on the special election, which will take place in the 2018 midterms. At this point, Strange is the only declared candidate for the seat, although a few House Republicans have been mentioned as potential contenders — Robert Aderholt , Martha Roby, and Mo Brooks. Having an incumbent in the seat will likely dissuade the three members from competing for the Senate seat at the risk of their own incumbencies, but that may depend in large part on how Strange performs over the next 18 months, too. Sessions’ full term expires in 2020, so Republicans will have to defend the same seat two cycles in a row.

Bentley’s choice is curious for another reason:

There has been an effort inside Alabama GOP circles during the past 24 hours to persuade Bentley to choose another candidate due to the potential conflict-of-interest over Strange, who was reportedly conducting an investigation into the governor over a sex scandal. Bentley, however, refused to back away from his decision to appoint Strange to the vacant seat.

In 2016, Strange sought a delay in impeachment proceedings by an Alabama House panel against Bentley while his office conducted “necessary related work” in the Bentley probe, although Strange later denied he was targeting the governor, according to numerous media reports in Alabama.

Marshall County District Attorney Steve Marshall is expected to replace Strange as the state’s attorney general, according to Republican insiders.

Expect to hear some grumblings from Democrats about political favors, but this makes more sense as a long-term effort to keep the seat. Strange has won statewide office in Alabama and is best positioned to keep the seat in further elections. Strange made it clear he’d run for the seat in 2018 regardless of who got the interim appointment, so it makes more sense to head off a potentially bloody internal fight now.

Strange will take the oath of office this afternoon, in plenty of time to cast a vote in support of Tom Price for HHS Secretary. Strange had better start drinking the Senate coffee — that vote is tentatively scheduled for 1:45 am tomorrow, if Democrats hold onto every moment of speaking time they have after losing a procedural vote earlier on Price’s confirmation.