MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) -- Former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore's entry into the U.S. Senate race adds another layer of drama to what's already expected to be a rollicking special election to fill the seat previously held by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The fiery Republican jurist's stands against gay marriage and for a courthouse display of the Ten Commandments have earned him the nickname the "Ayatollah of Alabama" from the Southern Poverty Law Center — and legions of loyal followers across the country. Moore announced his candidacy among the swelling GOP field Wednesday in what is expected to be a cutthroat primary.
"My position has always been God first, family, then country. I think I share the vision of President Donald Trump to make America great again. You know, before we can make America great again, we have got to make America good again," the 70-year old jurist said in his campaign announcement on the steps of the Alabama Capitol.
"The foundations of the fabric of our country are being shaken tremendously. Our families are being crippled by divorce and abortion. Our sacred institution of marriage has being destroyed by the Supreme Court," Moore said.
The high-stakes Senate race was already tinged with drama after it collided with an unlikely sex scandal that had hung over the Bible Belt state for the past year.
The U.S. Senate seat is currently held by former Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange. He was appointed by then-Gov. Robert Bentley, who resigned this month amid fallout from an alleged affair with a top staffer. Bentley had planned for a 2018 Senate election — a move that allowed his pick to hold the seat longer. But the state's new governor, Kay Ivey, moved it up to this year, setting off what's expected to be a four-month demolition derby among Republican contenders ahead of the Aug. 15 primary.
Strange is running for the seat. A dominant Republican in the state, Strange's appointment became controversial because of indications that his office might have been investigating Bentley when he was elevated to the Senate. Strange in November asked an impeachment committee to pause its efforts while his office pursued "related work."
Christian Coalition Chairman Randy Brinson and state Rep. Ed Henry, who spearheaded an impeachment push against Bentley, have also announced on the Republican side. Other hopefuls are expected to announce before qualifying ends in mid-May.
Eva Kendrick, state director of the Human Rights Campaign Alabama, a gay rights organization, said Moore is seeking "to capitalize on the name recognition he gained for harming LGBTQ people in our state."
"Roy Moore was removed — twice — from the Alabama Supreme Court for unethical behavior; rarely does an elected official become more ethical when they are elevated to a higher office," Kendrick said.
When Moore made his announcement, he was surrounded by two dozen cheering supporters, including some who had stood by him through previous quixotic quests such as the public display of the Ten Commandments.
"Alabama will become 'Ground Zero' in the political and cultural war," said Dean Young, a longtime Moore supporter.
Moore has twice won statewide elections for chief justice, and twice been removed from those duties.
The Court of Judiciary, which disciplines judges, removed Moore as Alabama's chief justice in 2003 after he disobeyed a federal judge's order to remove a granite Ten Commandments monument that he installed in the rotunda of the state judicial building.
He was re-elected as chief justice in 2012. The judiciary panel in September suspended Moore for the remainder of his term, saying he had violated judicial ethics by urging probate judges to refuse marriage licenses to gay couples. The accusation stemmed from a Jan. 6, 2016, memo to probate judges saying an Alabama Supreme Court order to refuse marriage licenses to gay couples remained in "full force and effect" even though the highest court in the nation ruled that gays and lesbians have a fundamental right to marry.
Moore denied the charge of urging defiance and said he was only giving a status update on litigation. He resigned as chief justice Wednesday to pursue the Senate race.
Although Moore has enjoyed fame from his stances, he remains a polarizing figure in his own state and has been largely unable to parlay his reputation into political success outside of his two chief justice races as state voters abandoned him in favor of more mainstream candidates.
In 2010, he finished fourth in the Republican primary candidate for governor.
He will try to break that losing streak in the Senate race, where the crusading jurist will face a well-funded Strange and potentially other deep-pocketed business-backed candidates.
For Moore, a one-time kickboxer, West Point graduate and military police officer who earned the unflattering nickname "Captain America" from his troops because of his strict adherence to military code, taking on fights has become largely entwined with his political identity.
Moore said he had no regrets about his former stances.
"What I did, I did for the people of Alabama. I stood up for the Constitution. I stood up for God," he said.