President Trump is heading to Alabama to prop up a hand-picked establishment candidate against a bomb-throwing insurgent, setting up a key test of whether the president himself or his “Drain the swamp” message is more important to the GOP base.
Trump will hold a Friday night rally for Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL), a former lobbyist and state attorney general appointed by a corrupt governor earlier this year. Trump’s visit could prove pivotal in Strange’s uphill battle to win Tuesday’s primary runoff against firebrand former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore (R), who even Strange’s allies admit has more in common stylistically with the president than their candidate.
Trump’s endorsement has helped keep Strange’s hopes alive. But when the president comes to Huntsville on Friday and tells his supporters to jump for Luther, the question is how high they’ll go.
“This could tilt things in Luther’s favor. I hope it does. But you sometimes don’t know,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), a Strange ally, told TPM. “It’s going to help. The question is how much?”
The president remains immensely popular in Alabama, a state where right-wing populism burns as hot as anywhere in the nation. But helping “Big Luther,” a soft-spoken if loyal foot soldier whose most obvious trait is his towering height and biggest advantage is the $9 million Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) super-PAC is spending for him, has put the president crossways with some of Trump’s own fiercest defenders.
Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon has been leading the charge for Moore, using the race as a proxy battle for his planned primary war against McConnell. His website Breitbart has made the race the top focus, hoping a Moore win can help ignite a firestorm of primary challenges this election cycle.
A laundry list of former Trump staff, early endorsers and other nationalist and right-wing figures that make up the rosebush of thorns in the side of GOP leadership have joined him.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), an early Trump backer, and Sebastian Gorka, a right-wing nationalist who was recently pushed out of the White House, are co-headlining a Thursday night rally for Moore. Others include Fox News host (and informal Trump adviser) Sean Hannity, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), whose own daughter Sarah Huckabee Sanders is the White House press secretary, and evangelical Christian TV stars like actor-ninja Chuck Norris and Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson.
“If you have any scent of Washington on you the voters just distrust it … and Trump is a leader of a movement, but he’s not the movement,” said the Eagle Forum’s Ed Martin, a top social conservative who often appears on TV as a Trump surrogate — and is backing Moore. “If Roy Moore wins, it’s a win for the populist drain-the-swamp flamethrower crowd, and that looks like Trump. If Luther Strange wins that says wow, he can carry along someone with the McConnell stamp.”
The president’s endorsement probably means a lot more to the average Alabama Republican than their collective opposition, which Strange was happy to point out.
“It is fantastic. We have a great working relationship, he wants a floor leader if you will for his agenda, so I’m really looking forward to having him in Alabama,” he told TPM, shrugging when asked about the Trump allies backing Moore.
“I think the president and the vice president says it all,” he said with a smile.
His allies agree, arguing Strange can do more to further Trump’s agenda than the stubborn Moore.
“We’ve got Hercules coming to Alabama, we’ve got Donald Trump,” said Trump Alabama state chairman Perry Hooper, who’s backing Strange. “Luther has proven he will be up there every day trying to implement the Trump agenda. Roy Moore isn’t like that. We don’t have time for more distractions and obstructionists.”
But it’s unclear whether enough voters love and trust Trump enough to go with him for a man who in some ways embodies what they hate about the GOP establishment.
McConnell’s heavy-handed support for Strange is a two-edged sword in a state where national elites are detested.
More problematic: Strange got to the Senate in the first place by accepting an appointment from former Gov. Robert Bentley (R), who shortly afterward had to resign because of charges he used campaign contributions for an extramarital affair with a senior staffer. Strange headed the official investigation into Bentley and had asked the state legislature to hold off on its own inquiry until his could wrap up, and many in the state question whether he should have asked Bentley for the job.
Moore is well known for his controversial religious conservatism and fiery rhetoric. He made national headlines in the early 2000s for erecting a huge monument of the Ten Commandments in front of his courthouse then refusing to remove it, and returned to prominence for refusing to obey the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing gay marriage. His regular diatribes against gays, Muslims, liberals and activist judges are a feature, not a bug, of his campaign — and a big reason why he led the first round of primary voting.
Moore is a divisive figure even in Alabama GOP circles and has lost other primaries in the state. But he’s led in every single public poll of the race. Plugged-in Alabama Republicans say the deluge of ads attacking Moore and highlighting Trump’s support of Strange have narrowed the contest, and say visits from Trump and Vice President Mike Pence (who’s coming Monday) will help. But they still believe Moore is ahead.
“The Trump and Pence visits are definitely a positive for Luther and I think the view is this is making the race closer. I just don’t know that it’s going to ultimately make the difference,” one Alabama GOP strategist supporting Strange told TPM. “The national mood that’s definitely alive and well in this state is Republican disgust with the establishment and status quo, and the circumstances under which Luther got this appointment, are the factors that have given Moore this advantage.”
Senate Republican leaders have made no bones about how much they want to keep Moore out of Washington.
“Getting thrown off the Supreme Court of your state twice I don’t think is a credential that commends you for membership in the United States Senate,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) told reporters on Tuesday.
Trump endorsed Strange early on, but many Trump backers chalked that up to his desire to defeat Trump critic Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) in the first round of the primary. But after staying quiet for weeks, he’s suddenly showed a renewed interest.
Looking forward to Friday night in the Great State of Alabama. I am supporting "Big" Luther Strange because he was so loyal & helpful to me!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 20, 2017
It’s unclear whether Trump’s seal of approval will be enough for Strange to overcome his own problems.
“The specter of how the appointment went down has put a cloud over [Strange] that he can’t shake,”said Chris Brown, a GOP strategist who ran another candidate’s primary race but supports Strange in the runoff. “This is going to be a question of whether people dislike Robert Bentley or like Donald Trump more?”