Trump Stumps for Strange in Race Pitting Him Against Bannon

Updated on
  • The president’s former strategist is backing Roy Moore
  • Alabama race is a referendum on Republican party’s direction
GOP candidate for U.S. Senate Sen. Luther Strange, R-Ala., speaks during the U.S. Senate candidate forum held by the Shelby County Republican Party in Pelham, Ala., on Friday, Aug. 4, 2017.
Photographer: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

President Donald Trump asked Alabama voters at a Friday night rally to return Luther Strange to the U.S. Senate, intervening personally in a contentious intraparty Republican fight.

Strange is currently the underdog versus Roy Moore, the former chief justice of the state Supreme Court who is a heavyweight in Christian conservative circles and enjoys nearly universal name recognition in Alabama. Moore also has the backing of Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon.

“On Tuesday we’re going to send a real fighter and a real good guy from Alabama to the United States Senate on a permanent basis,” Trump said at the rally.

The GOP primary run-off has become a struggle between establishment Republicans, exemplified by Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and those who consider themselves the guardians of the insurgent movement that lifted Trump into office. McConnell has rallied behind Strange.

On the other side are former White House aides led by Bannon, who has returned to Breitbart News, many religious conservatives and Tea Party favorites. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson endorsed Moore in a statement on Friday. Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee appeared at a post-debate rally with Moore on Thursday along with former Trump national security aide Sebastian Gorka.

Trump vs. Bannon

Trump has on more than one occasion asked Republicans involved in the race for updates on what Bannon is doing to undermine Strange, according to two people familiar with the matter. A person familiar with Bannon’s work said the president had encouraged him to support candidates who would oppose McConnell.

Strange distanced himself from the Senate majority leader at the rally, saying that he wants to ensure Trump has the votes “to stand up to Mitch McConnell, John McCain and even our Republican so-called conservatives who stand in the way of the president’s agenda.”

A vote for him, Strange said, “will send a message” to “the establishment in Washington, D.C. that Alabama stands by this president.”

The Senate Leadership Fund, a super political action committee aligned with McConnell, has spent more than $5 million to support Strange in the runoff, much of it on television advertising. The super PAC paid for TV ads to run 3,472 times on broadcast stations between Sept. 1-18, or 55 percent of the 6,292 ads from all sources, according to data from ad-tracker Kantar Media/CMAG.

“He’s not a friend of Mitch McConnell,” Trump said. “He doesn’t know Mitch McConnell” because Strange hasn’t been in the Senate long enough, the president added.

There were empty seats in the upper sections of Huntsville’s Von Braun Center, which has a maximum capacity of 10,000 according to its website.

Pence Rally

In a sign of Trump’s determination to help Strange win, Vice President Mike Pence intends to travel to Alabama on Monday to visit NASA in Huntsville and then hold a rally for Strange in an airport hangar in Birmingham, aides said. The runoff election is Tuesday.

Strange, a former state attorney general, was appointed in February to temporarily fill the Senate seat Jeff Sessions vacated to become Trump’s attorney general.

“Luther Strange is determined to drain that swamp,” Trump said. He acknowledged, though, that Strange’s appointment to the seat is a political detriment.

The governor who appointed Strange, Robert Bentley, resigned in April after pleading guilty to misdemeanor campaign finance violations related to an alleged cover-up of an extramarital affair.

“The fact that he got appointed hurt him,” Trump said. “He was thinking about not accepting that. But if Luther didn’t take an appointment, if he just ran, there wouldn’t even be a contest.”

Trump initially wanted to campaign for Strange on Friday in Mobile, a city the president has been very fond of since it hosted a huge rally for him in summer 2015 when his credibility as a candidate was very much in question. But political advisers said his influence was most needed in Huntsville, hometown of Republican Congressman Mo Brooks, who endorsed Moore last weekend after placing third in the Senate primary election.

Moore’s Lead

Moore is best known for being ousted twice from the Alabama Supreme Court. In 2003, he refused to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the court building despite a federal court order to do so. He was suspended from the court in 2016 for telling state judges to disregard the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage.

Moore leads public polling on average by about eight percentage points, according to Real Clear Politics. Some internal polling shows the race within the margin of error, but with Moore still ahead, two GOP operatives said.

In a debate with Moore on Thursday night, Strange, 64, repeatedly invoked his close association with Trump, noting he and the president had chatted for half an hour by phone the night before.

Moore, 70, who wants to eliminate Senate rules that require 60 votes to advance most legislation and thinks transgender troops hurt the military, stressed that “God is the only source of our law.”

‘Big Luther’

Trump quickly grew to like “Big Luther,” as he calls the 6-foot-9 senator, after he was sworn in Feb. 9, according to aides. He repeatedly praised Strange during the rally for not asking for anything in exchange for his votes in favor of legislation to repeal Obamacare.

In a state where Trump won 62 percent of the vote in 2016, the winner of the Strange-Moore runoff will be the favorite in a Dec. 12 special election against Democrat Doug Jones, a former federal prosecutor. The victor in that contest would finish the six-year term originally won in 2014 by Sessions.

But Trump warned that Moore, whom he didn’t identify by name, would make the general election competitive.

“I’m taking a big risk. Because if Luther doesn’t make it, they’re going to go after me, these very dishonest people,” he said, referring to reporters. If Strange wins, Trump said, “that race is over. If somebody else wins, I will tell you, that’s going to be a very tough race.”

Trump made time for his Huntsville trip Friday despite a busy week of high-pressure diplomacy in New York at the United Nations General Assembly. He was accompanied to Alabama by his chief of staff John Kelly, speechwriter Stephen Miller and deputy chief of staff Rick Dearborn, who was an Alabama congressional aide to Sessions.

— With assistance by Gregory Giroux

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