Will Trump Stand By a Loser in Alabama?
Aug. 8 was another dramatic day in the young presidency of Donald Trump. Not the chaos-in-the-West-Wing kind, but worse -- the threaten-nuclear-war kind. Surprising his own national security team, Trump had promised North Korea would “face fire and fury like the world has never seen” should it continue threatening the United States. As the world waited on edge for a potential missile attack on Guam, Trump, at 9:16 p.m., suddenly tweeted out an endorsement of acting Alabama Sen. Luther Strange in that state’s Senate race.
It was, well, strange. Strange, who has been serving in the seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, was the establishment choice who had the enthusiastic backing of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Senate Leadership Fund. The Trump endorsement came without McConnell’s urging or prior knowledge, and surprised those vying to replace Strange, including Rep. Mo Brooks, who was running a campaign focused against McConnell. Trump recorded a robo-call for Strange (pictured) and urged support for him in a tweet on primary day, Aug. 15. Strange pulled in 33 percent, compared to populist evangelical favorite Judge Roy Moore, who drew 39 percent, and the two face a runoff Sept. 26.
Moore was, until last September, the chief justice of Alabama but was suspended from the bench for defying a ruling on same-sex marriage by the Supreme Court. It was the second time he lost his perch as chief justice, having also defied a federal court order in 2003 to remove a Ten Commandments plaque he placed in a state courthouse.
As of now, Moore is polling consistently better than Strange and is the favorite to win a campaign in which he embraces Trump but is railing against the establishment and the current sitting senator, whom he says is “beholden to Mitch McConnell.” Strange is faring better with Republicans who disapprove of Trump, while Moore is doing far better among strong Trump supporters. Complicating matters, Steve Bannon made clear at a meeting of conservative groups last week that he would be supporting and helping Moore -- though somehow wanting to paint it not as a move against the president. The former chief strategist for President Trump has pledged all-out war against the GOP establishment, starting with Republican leaders in Congress.
While Strange continues to highlight Trump’s endorsement, the president has suddenly gone quiet. The day after the primary he congratulated both Moore and Strange in a tweet and said it would be an “exciting” race. On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders wouldn’t answer a question about whether Trump would continue to support Strange, saying she couldn’t speak about politics from the podium of the White House briefing room. Observers expect him to attempt to shirk blame if Strange loses, and who would be surprised if Trump attempts to switch horses midway through the race? One Alabama Republican said the only way Strange can win is “if Air Force One touches down in Mobile and they have a 60,000-person rally.” Strange isn’t holding his breath.
The problem for Strange isn’t McConnell and his ties to party leaders in Washington. His liability is the rap he earned in becoming a U.S. senator -- that of a political swamp creature -- the kind that Trump voters wanted the president to vanquish. Strange was the state attorney general when he was appointed to replace Sessions in February by then-Gov. Robert Bentley, who resigned shortly afterwards and pleaded guilty to using government funds to conduct and cover up an extramarital affair, a misdemeanor. Before Bentley stepped down, the Alabama House, controlled by Republicans, had taken up impeachment proceedings against him but stopped when Strange began an investigation into the scandal and asked that the impeachment proceedings be suspended. Critics claimed Strange never launched an investigation, so Bentley’s decision to appoint him to the Senate has been tainted as a quid pro quo ever since.
Strange’s campaign hopes he can dominate in the suburbs of Mobile and Birmingham, and that Moore’s ceiling is lower than it appears. Strange holds a financial advantage his allies hope will be decisive. Turnout doesn’t get lower than for a special election runoff in an off year, so the more effective campaign could beat the more popular candidate should Moore fail to excite a surge in voting. The hope for Moore is that Bannon can convince insurgent backers like Robert Mercer, who is currently funding a challenger to Sen. Jeff Flake in Arizona, to get on board. Breitbart News, which Bannon returned to run after leaving the White House, has given Moore an interview, and could choose to escalate attacks on both Strange and McConnell in the weeks to come.
McConnell and the Karl Rove-aligned super PAC spending millions on Sen. Strange won’t abandon him, but both campaigns are watching Bannon’s every move and Trump’s every tweet to glean an indication of what the president plans to do next -- embrace or avoid Luther Strange. Since Trump endorsed McConnell’s candidate of choice the president has attacked the Senate majority leader for failing to deliver a successful vote on health care reform and has left open the question of whether McConnell should step down.
It’s hard to see Trump risking anything more to help Strange, and to go up against Bannon and the forces behind Moore.
Should Trump bury his head and Bannon go all out for Moore, and Strange still wins, the victory will belong to McConnell and won’t bode well for the Bannon/Trump effort to oust incumbents in scorched-earth primary campaigns. Trump would publicly take credit, of course, but every Republican in politics will know he wasn’t happy with his own decision. Should Strange lose, he’ll be dead to Trump, and Trump will likely find reason to turn on even more incumbent Republicans than he already has. It’s hard to know which outcome Trump wants less.