Trump and Alabama Loyalists Stack Up on Opposite Sides of Senate Race
Conservatives backing GOP primary challenger still very much behind the president
Scores of Alabama voters who showed up Thursday at a former train station in Montgomery to watch a GOP Senate debate found themselves torn between a president they love and the candidate that same president scorned.
President Donald Trump has made the unusual move of wading into an intra-party skirmish and endorsed the state’s appointed Republican senator, Luther Strange. The president doubled down on that endorsement even after Strange finished second in the first round of voting last month in a contest to finish the term of Jeff Sessions, who left to become attorney general.
Trump will campaign for Strange in Huntsville, Alabama, on Friday, and Vice President Mike Pence will stump for him in the state on Saturday ahead of Tuesday’s runoff.
Supporters of challenger Roy Moore at Thursday’s debate-watch party and rally still largely back Trump but expressed surprise the president has lined up on the same side as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), whom they consider the face of the hated Republican Establishment.
Melda Deverell, who lives in Auburn, Alabama, and was wearing a red Trump hat, said the president’s endorsement did not give her second thoughts about supporting Moore.
“He’s a Christian, and I think President Trump is going to realize that he and Judge Moore are a lot alike,” she said.
Trump may be backing Strange, but most of the grass-roots conservative movement is on Moore’s side. That includes Citizens for Trump, which announced its endorsement of Moore on Thursday after the debate.
Speakers at Moore’s post-debate rally included Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former White House national security aide Sebastian Gorka. Siran Stacy, who starred on the gridiron for the University of Alabama, also spoke for Moore.
Many in the national conservative movement see Tuesday’s race as a harbinger of the midterm races in 2018, when they aim to take out incumbent Republican senators — such as Dean Heller of Nevada and Jeff Flake of Arizona — who have distanced themselves from Trump.
That narrative does not fit in Alabama, though. During his short tenure in the Senate, Strange has attached himself to Trump every chance he’s gotten, and he boasted of the endorsement repeatedly during the debate at a venue across town.
Ignore Trump, Fire at Mitch
Faced with the difficulty of reconciling Trump’s support for Strange, the speakers at the Moore rally simply ignored it. Instead, they mostly focused their fire on McConnell.
“Make no mistake, Big Luther is Mitch McConnell’s guy,” Palin said.
Referencing 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s infamous description of Trump supporters, Palin said of Moore: “He was deplorable before deplorable was cool.”
Gorka, who recently resigned his White House post, said The Washington, D.C., Establishment is following Alabama closely.
“They’re worried. And they should be worried,” he said. “We are here to drain the swamp with Judge Roy Moore.”
The Alabama contest has something else that the emerging GOP primary fights do not have — Moore. He is not merely a candidate of convenience for grass-roots conservatives; he is a beloved figure among the state’s sizable Christian Right, who has twice won statewide office as chief justice of the state Supreme Court — including after his removal by a judicial ethics panel over his refusal to obey a federal court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument in the state judicial building.
Wetumpka, Alabama, resident Adena Baker said she has been a Moore fan since he fought an ultimately losing battle in 2003 to keep the monument.
At a rally in the midst of that fight, Baker said, Moore stopped to talk to her grandson, who has a rare brittle-bone condition known as osteogenesis imperfecta.
“He got down on his haunches and talked to John Thomas,” she said. “I did not feel like he was campaigning for anything. I felt like he was genuine.”
As for Strange, after watching the debate on a big screen, Baker said: “I think Luther Strange talked like a politician.”
Daughter Carol Armstrong, who has the same bone condition as her son, said she was impressed with Moore’s performance. “I think he was spot-on,” she said.
The debate, itself, was a rarity in modern politics — a one-on-one encounter with no moderator, no audience questions and no queries submitted via social media platforms. Billed as an old-time debate in the style of Abraham Lincoln vs. Stephen Douglas, the event featured just a timekeeper and allowed the candidate to talk about whatever they wanted.
Themes that have dominated the entire campaign quickly took center stage. Strange said the race is about which candidate is best equipped to enact Trump’s agenda.
“Who does the president support? The president supports me,” he said at one point.
Strange argued Moore is not prepared to be senator and hit him over past stumbles, such as a radio interview in which he appeared to be unfamiliar with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects illegal immigrants brought to America as children.
Strange also took credit for beating former President Barack Obama in court as Alabama attorney general to block his quasi-amnesty program known as Deferred Action for the Parents of Americans (DAPA) and his Clean Power Plan to restrict carbon-based electricity. It is somewhat of an exaggeration; Strange signed on to lawsuits filed by other attorneys general in those cases.
Strange bristled at attempts to connect him to McConnell.
“They want to talk about Mitch McConnell,” he said. “They want to talk about everything under the sun, except the issues.”
For his part, Moore was careful not to criticize Trump. He said the president’s election “gave people new hope in this country.” He said he would be a staunch ally of the president.
“Politics goes on as usual,” he said. “Our president is frustrated. And I want to help him.”
Moore hit Strange hard over his biggest liability — the fact that he got the seat by way of appointment by a governor, Robert Bentley, who was under investigation by the attorney general’s office at the time. If a prosecutor is pursuing a murder case, Moore said, “you don’t go to supper with the defendant.”
Bentley ended up resigning a short time later and pleading guilty to a pair of misdemeanor offenses related to his use of state property to cover up an affair with a state aide.
Moore also referenced his fight to preserve Alabama’s ban on same-sex marriage. His conduct after the Supreme Court legalized such unions in Obergefell v. Hodges led to his suspension from the state Supreme Court.
Strange, Moore said, did not lift a finger to help.
“As soon as Obergefell came down, he caved,” he said.