Normally, a member of Congress who disavowed her own party’s president and was held under 40 percent in a primary would be a dead woman running in a primary runoff. But Rep. Martha Roby (R-AL) looks like she’ll survive her reelection fight next Tuesday — and she has Nancy Pelosi and President Trump to thank.
Roby called then-candidate Donald Trump “unacceptable” when his Access Hollywood video surfaced late in the 2016 campaign, demanding he drop out of the race. She followed up weeks later by saying she couldn’t look her children in the eye “and justify a vote for a man who promotes and boasts about sexually assaulting women.”
Those comments enraged many local Republicans at the time, who mounted a write-in campaign against her that siphoned off nearly 10 percent of the vote as she was held to an 8-point win in a district Trump won by nearly a two-to-one margin. That set up Roby for a tough 2018 election.
But she got lucky, as her primary runoff opponent, Democrat-turned-Republican former Rep. Bobby Bright, did the one thing that might piss off GOP activists even more than insulting Trump: He voted for Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) to be speaker of the House in 2008.
That was part of the reason why Trump agreed to endorse Roby last month, after Bright edged out other, more hardline conservative candidates to push her into the primary runoff.
Congresswoman Martha Roby of Alabama has been a consistent and reliable vote for our Make America Great Again Agenda. She is in a Republican Primary run-off against a recent Nancy Pelosi voting Democrat. I fully endorse Martha for Alabama 2nd Congressional District!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 22, 2018
Alabama Republicans think that will be enough to give her another term in Congress.
“Fair or unfair, a lot of Trump supporters took what she said really personally, as though she had wronged them somehow. The only person who could absolve that in their eyes is Trump himself – and he did,” Todd Stacy, a local political blogger who was Roby’s spokesman during the 2016 campaign, told TPM.
Perry Hooper, Trump’s Alabama state chairman, has known both candidates for years. His friendship with Bright goes back to Bright’s days as Montgomery mayor more than a decade ago, and he’s known Roby since she was little (their fathers were both local judges and his wife was Roby’s high school cheerleading coach). He’s backing Roby in the race, and encouraged Trump to do the same before the president’s endorsement.
“She upset me a couple years ago when she said the president should step aside … however, Martha was reelected and she has stuck with and supported the president probably more than any other congressman,” he said. “She’s been endorsed by the president. And the fact that Bobby supported Nancy Pelosi really hurts. … Pelosi is like the devil among Republicans.”
Hooper wasn’t the only one pushing the White House to back Roby, who is close to House GOP leadership. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) did so as well.
As Trump said, Roby has worked hard to embrace the president’s policies since his victory. While she’s never apologized for her 2016 remarks, she’s voted party-line on key items of the president’s agenda, worked alongside his daughter and adviser Ivanka on her push to expand the child tax credit, and has appeared several times at White House meetings for bill signings and policy events.
Conservative bona fides alone haven’t been enough to save other Republicans who criticized Trump, as Rep. Mark Sanford’s (R-SC) recent primary loss and Sen. Jeff Flake’s (R-AZ) decision to retire rather than lose his primary have proven. But unlike them, Roby hasn’t remained a critic of the president. And it sure helps to have a former Democrat to run against.
Money also matters. Roby had more than $700,000 in the bank as of her pre-runoff filing with the Federal Election Commission to just $160,000 for Bright, who is partly self-funding his campaign. That’s allowed her to deluge the airwaves with ads highlighting his Democratic past and her big endorsement.
Bright’s allies admit that the spending disparity has been a problem.
“She’s putting out these commercials, these lies. People are thinking Bobby is this horrible liberal and he’s really more conservative than her,” Jeana Boggs, a local Tea Party activist who’s backing Bright after supporting another candidate in the first round of voting, told TPM.
Bright argues that he’s the real conservative in the race – and he has a long track record of fairly conservative policy views. Bright voted more with Republicans than Democrats on the big issues during his two-year stint in office, and when he and Roby squared off in 2010 he ran ads highlighting his votes with the GOP and tried to get to her right on immigration, accusing her of slow-walking a push to keep local businesses from hiring undocumented immigrants.
The two go back even further than that 2010 contest, in which Roby squeaked out a two-point win: She was on the Montgomery city council when he was mayor more than a decade ago.
Bright argues his one major apostasy on the right, voting for Pelosi, was to ensure he could get good committee assignments and bring home the bacon for the poor district, which includes downtown Montgomery and much of the blue-collar agricultural southeastern corner of the state, known as the Wiregrass region.
“I didn’t vote for Nancy Pelosi. Let me clear that up, I voted for the district,” he said.
Bright says that ensured he got seats on the House Armed Services and Agriculture committees, two key issues for the farming- and military-heavy district. He slams Roby for abandoning her own seats on those committees to go to the powerful House Appropriations Committee: “She got off the two most important committees that affect people down here.”
Roby’s team points out that she now has a spot on the defense appropriation subcommittee, and that the chairmen of her former committees both endorsed her.
“He can say whatever he wants about how conservative he is, but that vote speaks very loudly,” Roby spokesman Blake Harris told TPM. “She’s had a great relationship with the White House and voted for Trump’s agenda.”
Bright has embraced Trump hard in the race, echoing the president’s calls to “drain the swamp,” though he said he didn’t love everything about the president personally.
“Do I embrace all the personal issues he confronts? No, I don’t,” he said. “But I do endorse and embrace his efforts to build our country, make it strong.”
As Bright points out, Trump doesn’t have a sterling track record in Alabama endorsements – Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL) lost his primary in spite of Trump’s support, and Roy Moore lost his Senate bid after Trump endorsed him in the general election. But neither candidate’s weakness was a lack of fealty to Trump, like Roby’s was.
Bright claimed that Trump “struck a deal with Roby and her lobbyist Paul Ryan and the establishment in Washington,” exchanging his endorsement for promises of support.
Whether or not it’s true, the support could play major dividends for her on Tuesday.
“The Trump endorsement was very, very helpful to Martha. She was already well positioned in this runoff because of Bright’s Democratic history and I suspect the endorsement sealed the deal for her,” said Toby Roth, a top Alabama GOP consultant and lobbyist who’s backing Roby in the race.