President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell went all in for their man Luther Strange in the Alabama Senate race — but the two GOP leaders will need a lot more to put him over the top after Strange’s second-place finish in Tuesday’s opening round of balloting.
Strange starts the six-week runoff in the hole against former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, whose fervent base of evangelical supporters helped him clinch nearly 40 percent of the vote in a field of 10 candidates. The outcome puts enormous pressure on Trump and McConnell, both of whom have put their political capital in the line: They now must find a way to get Strange a majority of support when the Republican nomination is decided on Sept. 26.
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Senior Republicans conceded that Tuesday’s results weren’t what they’d hoped for. But they argued that Strange, who in February was appointed to the Senate seat that Attorney General Jeff Sessions held for two decades, still has a path to victory.
One option being considered by McConnell allies, who have already spent around $4 million in support of Strange, is a scorched-earth campaign targeting Moore. In a possible preview of what’s to come, the pro-McConnell Senate Leadership Fund began airing TV commercials in the days leading up to Tuesday’s primary accusing Moore of taking funds from a charity he ran.
Those involved with Senate Leadership Fund insist they have not yet decided on what approach to take. In the days to come, the group intends to examine the results and pore through polling to determine how to proceed. Yet to some, Strange’s backers have little choice but to turn Moore — a controversial figure who rose to national fame after refusing to obey a federal court order to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from a state judicial building — into an unacceptable choice for the Senate.
“I think it’s a pretty nasty six weeks,” said Blake Harris, a Republican strategist in the state. “If Luther is running from behind, they’re going to have to do some work on Moore.”
Trump gave his full-throated support to Strange. The president effectively bet that his own coattails in Alabama would more than compensate for the baggage Strange carries as the candidate of the D.C. establishment. Alabama was critical to the president’s rise, home to an Aug. 2015 rally that was seen as a key early moment in his campaign. A Strange loss would be seen as an embarrassment for Trump.
It is for that reason that some of the president’s top advisers urged him to stay out of the contest, convinced that an endorsement would be an unnecessary risk.
Yet over the past week, Trump has cut a robocall for Strange and tweeted repeatedly in support of him. A White House-sanctioned super PAC, meanwhile, spent around $200,000 in the final days of the race to encourage Trump supporters to turn out for Strange.
The president must now decide how aggressively to back the senator in the runoff — including whether he should make a personal visit to the state. With most of the vote counted in the first round of voting, Moore had 39.5 percent, with Strange at 32 percent and Rep. Mo Brooks at 20 percent.
McConnell has even more riding on the race than Trump. The Senate leader has made the Alabama race his top political priority, a decision borne in part out of a desire to protect besieged incumbents like Strange. Yet it is also reflects McConnell’s desire to keep bomb-throwing insurgents like Moore, who has vowed to oppose McConnell, out of his conference.
That sentiment was reinforced by the leader’s failure to pass an Obamacare repeal bill. McConnell’s super PAC, Senate Leadership Fund, is prepared to spend as much as $4 million more to get Strange elected.
Yet some believe the barrage is causing a backlash within the state, feeding the perception that big Washington interests are trying to buy the election. At a time when the public is fed up with party leaders, voters are being repelled by McConnell’s effort to influence the contest, critics of the ad barrage say.
“We don’t like for government — state, local — to inject too much into our personal lives. And what we’ve been seeing with Mitch McConnell and the Senate Leadership Fund is a true injection of money and opinion into our state and into this race and the backlash is palpable,” said GOP state Rep. Ed Henry, a prominent Trump supporter in Alabama. “People are angry.”
Particularly concerning for the pro-Strange forces is the prospect that Brooks, the third place finisher who received nearly 20 percent of the vote, will endorse Moore. In the weeks leading up to the primary, as he came under heavy assault from Senate Leadership Fund, Brooks warned that his voters would be less inclined to support the McConnell-backed Strange in the runoff and that they would migrate to Moore.
“I don’t think it’s very unclear at all. The supporters of Mo Brooks by and large will not be supporting Luther Strange,” said Bill Armistead, a former Alabama GOP chairman who helped to lead the Brooks campaign. “The Senate Leadership Fund has run so much negativism, it’s hard to imagine any of the Brooks supporters getting behind Luther Strange.”
Top Senate GOP officials say they’ve been digging into polling to determine what effect a Brooks endorsement of Moore would have. In the end, Strange is hitching his fortunes to Trump, who carried the state by nearly 30 points in the November election.
Over the coming weeks, pro-Strange TV ads are expected to highlight his presidential endorsement. Yet some believe the 70-year-old Moore, a well-known commodity in Alabama politics, could survive a Trump-led effort to save Strange.
“Judge Moore has a core group of followers that really believe in his message,” said Tom Young, a former chief of staff to Alabama GOP Sen. Richard Shelby. “And even if he ran against Donald Trump, a lot of core supporters would support him.”
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