In spite of his polarizing image and sagging approval ratings, President Trump has yet to suffer a major loss at the ballot box. That may change on Tuesday — because Trump embraced the establishment.
Trump called into the “Rick & Bubba Show” in Alabama on Monday morning to talk up appointed Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL), who’s facing off against hardline conservative and former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore (R) in Tuesday’s primary to fill out the Senate term of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“I’m 5-0 in these races. And I want to keep it, I want to make it 6-0,” Trump bragged about his special election record since becoming president. “He is a good man. We can’t lose him.”
But it looks like that streak’s about to end. Every public survey of the campaign has found Moore in the lead, including a trio of polls released in recent days that show him with a double-digit edge. And while most strategists in the state think the contest is a bit closer than that and say Trump has helped Strange close that gap some in the race’s home stretch — “The race is close, it’s been closing,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), a Strange backer, told TPM on Monday — most also think that Moore is the odds-on favorite to win on Tuesday.
“The conversation in Alabama today is what’s the margin of the Moore victory going to be, not who’s going to win,” said one Alabama GOP strategist who’s backing Strange in the race. “Trump is not a pied piper who is going to lead people blindly down a path.”
Strange has been dogged from the start by how he got the appointment in the first place. He was given the job by disgraced then-Gov. Robert Bentley (R), who had to resign shortly afterwards amidst a sex scandal. Strange had been the state’s attorney general at the time and in charge of investigating Bentley, and many see the appointment as fishy — something Trump himself admitted on Monday.
“Because he was appointed by a little bit of a controversial guy I guess as I understand it, now it makes the race tough,” he said, shortly after blaming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) unpopularity as hurting his candidate in the race.
And while Trump came in to help Strange in a Friday rally, he admitted during that speech that “I might have made a mistake” politically in backing the underdog in the race.
It’s clear the race hasn’t been Trump’s overriding focus — he twice referred to Moore as “Ray,” not Roy, in his Monday interview, and he spent almost as much time in his Alabama rally attacking NFL players who dared kneel during the national anthem as promoting Strange (and much more time in subsequent days). But a loss there will show the limits of his ability to move base conservatives, especially when he gets crossways with them.
While Trump’s endorsement has likely kept Strange in the race at all, Moore has benefitted from the backing of a constellation of big-name Trump supporters, from Breitbart head and former chief White House strategist Steve Bannon to former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) to Housing & Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson to Fox News host Sean Hannity.
They jumped on the bandwagon, but Moore has led the race from the start — equally because of his rabid base following and because of Strange’s issues.
And while whoever wins the primary will be the heavy favorite to replace Sessions, Democrats haven’t completely ruled out helping former State Attorney Doug Jones in the general election. Former Vice President Joe Biden is heading to the state to help his old friend, and national Democrats are taking a wait-and-see approach on whether he might be competitive against Moore given his penchant for comments that are polarizing even in Alabama.
“The [National Republican Senatorial Committee] might have to spend money to protect this seat, which is crazy in my mind,” said Alabama GOP strategist Chris Brown, who ran another candidate’s campaign in the first round of the primary and is reluctantly voting for Strange. “This is not going to be a race we’ll stop talking about after this week.”