By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
Establishment forces in Washington have come out in force in support of Sen. Luther Strange in next month’s US Senate special election but an Alabama political powerhouse is prepared to go to war with Strange’s campaign.
Tuscaloosa real estate developer and resident millionaire, Stan Pate, is preparing a vigorous ad and information campaign against Strange, whom he plans to paint as a “Washington swamp creature.”
Late last month, Pate formed a new political action committee, Swamp Drainers Foundation, with the Federal Election Commission. He plans to use it to fund an effort to unseat Strange by filling the internet and the airwaves with the suggestion that Bentley and Strange “made a deal” over now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ vacated US Senate seat.
Pate, who has spent thousands of dollars on political campaigns since getting involved in Guy Hunt’s campaign for governor in 1986, is not a stranger to political messaging. His PAC’s first ad — a 17-second animation of Bentley and Stranges — guides viewers through what he said was a conspiracy to get Bentley off the hook for corruption and get Strange the prestigious Senate appointment.
“They don’t have to spend much time wondering why Luther Strange got the appointment,” Pate told APR. “At the end of the day, Luther Strange needs to be held accountable.”
Pate said more than 200,000 people have already watched the ad, currently floating around on social media and the PAC’s website, SwampDrainers.com. But he has no plans to stop online. The millionaire said he will do whatever it takes to make sure “anyone but Luther” gets the Senate seat.
“There is a lot more to come,” Pate said. “There will be more.”
Pate alleges that Bentley and Strange made a deal and “exchanged a thing of value” in the form of the Senate seat, to which Bentley appointed Strange in May. What Bentley got in exchange was the chance to appoint his own attorney general — the chance to get dampen a long-term investigation Strange’s Attorney General’s Office was conducting into Bentley’s actions as Governor, Pate said.
“The governor ultimately went home with a little community service, claiming himself to be the greatest governor of the history of the state of Alabama,” Pate said. “It’s really simple, certainly if Strange had any ethics, he shouldn’t have accepted the appointment.”
Only months before accepting the post, Strange began questioning and denying the generally accepted notion that his office was investigating Bentley’s conduct and his relationship with a former top political aide, Rebekah Mason. Around the same time, in December of 2016, he began interviewing with Bentley for the post.
Earlier in the year in October, Strange sent a letter to the House Judiciary Committee, requesting they put a hold on their active impeachment investigation because it would conflict with “necessary related work” his office was conducting. The impeachment remained stalled until March of the next year.
Ultimately, Bentley accepted a plea deal with prosecutors appointed by Strange’s Bentley-appointed successor, Attorney General Steve Marshall. He pled guilty to two misdemeanor campaign finance violations that resulted in several thousand dollars in fines and 100 hours of community service. He resigned as part of the plea deal and agreed to never run for public office again.
The deal was reached after Strange resigned, and on the day of his appointment to the Senate, Strange still denied any knowledge of an active investigation despite his previous letter to the House and media reports to the contrary. Pate said he doesn’t believe Marshall nor the special prosecutor put in charge of the investigation were part of any deal.
Strange and Bentley have denied any wrongdoing and have said there was no conflict of interest surrounding the appointment.
“If Pate is against him,” said Shana Teehan, a Strange campaign spokeswoman, “it’s clear that Sen. Strange is the right person to help President Trump clean up Washington.”
Pate isn’t convinced.
“He should have politely told the governor, ’I’m investigating you. This is inappropriate,'” Pate said.
Pate’s plump advertising resources and his eager desire to unseat Strange could be a welcome turn for Strange’s two closest opponents, Congressman Mo Brooks and former Chief Justice Roy Moore, both of whom Pate said he would prefer over Sessions.
“I would prefer anybody other than Luther,” Pate, who has typically supported Republican candidates, said.
Pate said he expects Moore to come first in the primary by drawing an eager voter base, but he doesn’t believe he will win without a runoff. He expects Strange or Brooks to be the No. 2 in the primary.
Throughout his history as a donor and activist, Pate has supported Republicans such as Guy Hunt and even Sessions during his campaigns for Alabama attorney general. He has run campaigns against Republicans in the past, though typically from farther right.
He helped finance a campaign against former Gov. Bob Riley’s plan to increase tax revenue by $2 billion after promising in his campaign for governor not to raise taxes. In 2010, he financed ads calling for Riley’s impeachment.
The primary has largely been defined by Brooks and Strange battling over who is more loyal to Trump, who won by large margins in Alabama. Brooks parted with Trump Wednesday when he criticized his complaints about Sessions’ work as attorney general. Pate recently donated more than $8,000 to Brooks’ campaign.
Since the donation, Strange’s camp has tried to link Brooks to Pate and his anti-Trump message.
Ahead of the presidential primaries in Alabama, Pate paid for an anti-Trump message to be flown over college football games in January 2016. Pate said he had a “good relationship” with Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush during the 2016 presidential campaign, meeting with Rubio twice in person, one-on-one.
But he said if he agrees with Trump on anything, it’s his promise to “drain the swamp.”
Strange, he said, is a prime example of a “swamp creature” who has profited off politics in Washington. Before returning to Alabama in 1994 to work as a lawyer at the powerful Bradley Arant Boult Cummings law firm, Strange spent nearly two decades a lobbyist in D.C. for the Alabama-based natural gas company Sonat Offshore.
“He’s going back to Washington and is sitting in Washington, D.C., right now carrying out an agenda for those who have paid him for a living for many many years,” Pate said.
Now, Pate said those same people are financing attack ads against Brooks, who is perceived as Strange’s most capable rival. Strange has received backing from the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund, an establishment PAC that has accused Brooks of being anti-Trump, too liberal and of being a Washington insider himself.
So far, the PAC has paid almost $3 million for TV ads in the state in support of Strange.
Pate hopes to counter that.
“Now the voters have the opportunity to be the jury,” Pate said. “They’ll be a jury as to why Mitch McConnell and the Washington insiders — Luther’s former clients when he lobbied for many many years — are interjecting themselves into Alabama politics in an attempt to decide who the next United States senator is.”
Strange will face off against Brooks and Moore, along with seven other Republican hopefuls, next month in the special primary election set for August 15. Pate is expected to ramp up his advertising campaign in the weeks before the election.
Email Chip Brownlee at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.