Things would be so much simpler down in Alabama if the GOP contest to replace Jeff Sessions were a straightforward proxy war between the Steve Bannons of the world and the Mitch McConnells. That's how Roy Moore's campaign is framing the race: An outsider vs. the establishment. But there's a giant X factor in the mix. President Trump has endorsed quasi-incumbent Luther Strange, touting his blessing's effect on the campaign in a tweet last night:
Senator Luther Strange has gone up a lot in the polls since I endorsed him a month ago. Now a close runoff. He will be great in D.C.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 21, 2017
Some political observers speculated that Trump was merely perfunctorily checking a box at the behest of GOP fundraisers, and that he wasn't likely to really go to the mat for Strange. But Trump, a walking monument to bucking conventional wisdom, is doubling down. The president's approval rating in the state sits at 55 percent (+16), pulling even loftier numbers with Republicans. He'll head down south tonight to hold a campaign rally with his preferred candidate in the race, testing his influence among GOP primary voters in one of the country's reddest states.
President Donald Trump is set to step into a Senate race in Alabama that will test whether his word is enough to sway Republican voters in a hard-fought Bible Belt contest. Trump will campaign Friday night in Huntsville alongside Sen. Luther Strange -- a recent appointee who has based his entire campaign on his allegiance with the President. Strange faces Roy Moore, the twice-ousted former state Supreme Court chief justice, in a Republican primary runoff Tuesday for the seat previously held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Trump's popularity is Strange's strongest asset against Moore, who has over decades developed a loyal following in Alabama based on his message of making Christianity prominent in public policy-making and restricting LGBT rights.
Moore wants to make the race about Mitch McConnell and "the swamp." Strange wants it to be all about Trump:
In a debate against Moore on Thursday night, Strange boasted that he'd spent 30 minutes on the phone with Trump the previous night. "We've developed a close, personal friendship. We both come from the same background, the same mission, the same motivation to make this country great again," Strange said. "We've sort of bonded," he said. "I've not been in Washington as long as the President has. He's learned the ways of Washington the hard way -- lots of criticism, lots of people standing in the way -- and so have I."...Moore said the Senate majority leader is to blame for the failure, thus far, to repeal former President Barack Obama's signature health care law. "President Trump's being cut off in his office. He's being redirected by people like McConnell who do not support his agenda -- who will not support his agenda in the future," he said. Strange shot back that to suggest Trump "is being manipulated by Mitch McConnell is insulting to the President." As the two closed their moderator-free debate Thursday, Moore said that "there is a God in Heaven that's in this campaign." Strange shot back that he believes God is on both sides of the contest. But, he added: "The President is on my side."
The latest poll in this battle suggests that Strange will need every ounce of help he can get from the president over the campaign's home stretch. Moore holds a sizable lead:
A new poll by Strategy Research for Fox10 has Moore leading Strange 54% to 46% https://t.co/mHy5LbqmUO— Decision Desk HQ (@DecisionDeskHQ) September 22, 2017
The telephone survey of 2,000 Republicans, who have voted at least once in the last 4 elections and said they planned to vote next week, asked, “If the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate race were held today, for which of the following two candidates would you vote?” 54% said they would vote for Roy Moore, while 46% said Luther Strange. The survey also indicated President Donald Trump's endorsement of Luther Strange would only sway 2 out of 10 Republicans, planning to cast votes in the runoff. When asked, “President Donald Trump has endorsed Luther Strange and announced visits to Alabama to campaign for him. Did the endorsement by the President make a difference in deciding for whom you would vote?” 20% of those polled said the President's endorsement did make a difference, while 80% the president’s endorsement did not make a difference.
If two-in-ten primary voters are persuadable, that could be significant -- but time's a-wastin'. Trump could make a giant splash for Strange tonight, with local coverage dominating the weekend ahead of Tuesday's runoff; it's unclear whether we'll get any updated polling that reflects that dynamic prior to the vote. Meanwhile, Moore and his supporters can rest assured that he's led in six of the last six public polls of the race, so he's undoubtedly in the driver's seat. By the way, why is Trump pushing so hard for Strange, when much of his base might me more inclined toward the law-defying former judge? My guess is that it's a combination of factors. First, he and Strange have developed a working relationship in Washington, so there's some personal loyalty there. Second, Moore is a hardcore religious social conservative, which isn't exactly Trump's milieu. For instance, Trump is "fine" with gay marriage and went out of his way to appeal to the LGBTQ community during the campaign. Moore says that homosexuality itself (not same-sex marriage) should be, um, illegal. Finally, Trump wants to get things done in Washington, and Strange would be a reliable partner. Moore, by contrast, is embracing Rand Paul's purist approach to Obamacare repeal, opposing the last remaining bill to replace the failing law because it doesn't go far enough. Trump is pushing hard for Graham-Cassidy right now; Strange is a yes vote, Moore would be a no. Does Trump have the juice to pull Strange over the finish line in a significant upset? Stay tuned.
Parting thought: Take a look at this list of endorsements. When was the last time Hannity, Ingraham and Coulter all lined up against Trump (and the NRA) on any issue? I'll leave you with Sarah Palin stumping for Moore last night: