Donald Trump will visit Alabama next week and campaign for incumbent Senator Luther Strange, who is trailing anti-establishment candidate Roy Moore in the GOP Senate runoff race to replace Jeff Sessions (who was appointed attorney general).
I will be in Huntsville, Alabama, on Saturday night to support Luther Strange for Senate. "Big Luther" is a great guy who gets things done!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 16, 2017
Trump endorsed Strange in August, but it was unclear if he would actively campaign for him. After pleas from several GOP senators, including Strange himself, Trump agreed to try and boost the incumbent’s chances.
Moore leads Strange by 14 points in the latest poll. And in an ironic twist, the former state judge is being supported by Trump’s ex-chief of staff, Steve Bannon.
Trump’s unexpected move sets the stage for a showdown between the president and his recently departed chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who is all-in for Moore. Bannon has cast the Alabama race as an-important clash between grass-roots conservatives and the Washington establishment — and a test for whether other incumbent senators can be successfully challenged by insurgents in 2018.
In response, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other incumbent senators — including Strange himself — have leaned on the president for more help.
Strange spoke several times with Trump by phone last week and asked him to visit before the election. In one of the calls, Strange told the president that he wanted him to come to Alabama but understood that Trump was focused on a pair of devastating hurricanes, according to three people briefed on the discussion. During the 30-minute conversation, Trump told Strange he supported him but was unsure what he could do.
Strange also pitched Vice President Mike Pence. During a recent conversation, the senator gave Pence an update on how the race was going and contended public polling numbers showing him behind shouldn’t be taken seriously, said two people familiar with the discussion. Strange said he’d be appreciative of anything the White House could do. But there was still no commitment.
“The president is extremely popular here. His approval numbers are in the mid-80s among Republicans,” said Blake Harris, a Republican strategist in the state. “Even more, he’s got a record of drawing huge crowds in this state — so a visit could definitely make a difference in what is predicted to be a pretty low turnout election.”
Strange’s Senate colleagues got in on the push, too. Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, who is up for reelection in 2018 and faces the prospect of a primary challenge, spoke extensively with Trump on Friday and urged him to get involved, according to two people familiar with the conversation. And this week, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) told White House Chief of Staff John Kelly in a phone call that he’d love to see the president head to Alabama for Strange, said two people briefed on the discussion. Kelly told Inhofe that no decision had been made.
Bannon wants to use the Strange-Moore race as a template to challenge other GOP incumbent senators. His goal is to tear down the Republican Party and erect a new, more populist organization in its place.
But the Alabama race between a Republican incumbent and anti-establishment candidate may not present the best example of how to defeat other GOP senators. Strange is particularly vulnerable. He was appointed by Governor Robert Bentley when Jeff Sessions left the Senate to become attorney general. Moore has sky-high name recognition following several controversies when he served as a judge. He is also fairly well funded and uses social media expertly.
Perhaps it would be a huge victory for Bannon if Moore prevailed, in that it would prove that a Republican incumbent could be brought down. It would help recruiting other anti-establishment candidates who might otherwise hesitate in taking on a powerful incumbent. And it would send other establishment senators into a panic.
It remains to be seen how much help Trump can give Strange at this late date. But the incumbent needs everything he can get from the president and then some.