U.S. President Donald Trump heads to the southern state of Alabama Friday to campaign for an embattled Republican senator whose defeat could spell trouble for establishment Republican lawmakers seeking reelection next year and add new tensions to the party’s already fractious Senate caucus.
“Looking forward to Friday night in the Great State of Alabama,” Trump tweeted Wednesday, then underscored his support for Senator Luther Strange, who in February was named to fill the seat of former Senator Jeff Sessions, now U.S. attorney general.
Strange, who previously served as Alabama’s attorney general, faces the former chief justice of the state’s supreme court, Roy Moore, in a run-off primary election Tuesday. The contest has divided Republicans from Alabama to the nation’s capital and pitted Trump against his former chief strategist, Steve Bannon.
“Alabama is sooo lucky to have a candidate like ‘Big’ Luther Strange. Smart, tough on crime, borders & trade,” Trump wrote on Twitter.
“I’m really looking forward to having him [Trump] in Alabama,” Strange told reporters at the Capitol earlier this week. “I think having [support from] the president and the vice president says it all.”
Meanwhile, the ultra-conservative Breitbart News Network, a website overseen by Bannon since he left the White House last month, has thrown its weight behind Moore. The Bible-quoting conservative jurist was twice removed from Alabama’s highest court, first for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument from a judicial building, and then again for directing judges not to issue same-sex marriage licenses after the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing those unions nationwide.
More recently, Moore created a firestorm by appearing to label Native Americans as “reds” and Asians as “yellows.”
“Now we have blacks and whites fighting, reds and yellows fighting, Democrats and Republicans fighting, men and women fighting," Moore said in a campaign speech. "What's going to unite us? What's going to bring us back together? A president? A Congress? No. It's going to be God.”
Public opinion polls have consistently shown Strange trailing Moore, who was the top vote-getter of 10 Republicans who competed in the first round of primary voting in August. The winner of Tuesday’s run-off contest will become the instant favorite to beat Democrat Doug Jones, given that Alabama is one of the nation’s most Republican-leaning states.
Strange is widely viewed as a team player by the Senate’s Republican leadership, which needs loyal foot soldiers as it pursues an ambitious legislative agenda with a narrow two-seat majority in the 100-member chamber. Conventional wisdom in Washington holds that his defeat could embolden primary challengers to some of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s top lieutenants in next year’s mid-term elections.
As a result, Senate Republicans have rallied behind Strange with millions of dollars in advertising blanketing Alabama’s airwaves, and strongly urged Trump to campaign for the incumbent.
When asked about the presidential visit, Moore shrugged.
“I don’t know if it’s going to help Luther Strange at all,” Moore told Fox News. “I think people know me. They know I’m not running against Donald Trump. I have supported things that Donald Trump stands for.”
Moore’s campaign is counter-punching by casting him as a valiant David standing up to the Goliath of Washington’s political machine.
“The Republican establishment has failed us,” Moore said in an advertisement.
In another Moore ad, an announcer says, “Washington insiders see Judge Roy Moore as their biggest threat because he doesn’t tolerate backroom deals and won’t kiss the establishment’s ring.”
For his part, Strange has cast himself as a Trump ally in a state that voted overwhelmingly for the president last year.
“We have a great working relationship,” Strange told reporters. “He [Trump] wants a floor leader, if you will, for his agenda.”
In a television ad, the incumbent said, “I’m working with President Trump to drain the swamp, stopping illegal immigration by building a wall [with Mexico]. I’ll fight for President Trump’s agenda every day.”
While Trump campaigns for Strange, other Republican notables have lined up behind Moore. Former Alaska Governor and one-time Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, as well as former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka, were expected at a Moore rally in Alabama’s state capital, Montgomery.