President Trump will swoop into Alabama on Friday to bolster the campaign of Sen. Luther Strange, a soft-spoken former state attorney general now in danger of losing the seat he was tapped to fill just months ago after Jeff Sessions joined the administration.
But in this conservative state that overwhelmingly supported Trump and prides itself as the heart of Old Dixie, some think the president is backing the wrong man. And they’re not sure his visit will help.
Voter enthusiasm instead runs high for the more Trump-like candidate, Roy Moore, the state’s polarizing former chief justice. His far-right, Bible-quoting views twice resulted in him being forced off the bench for defying higher court decisions, including the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of gay marriage. Die-hard supporters have no doubt he will be just as unwavering if they send him to Washington.
The GOP establishment has poured millions of dollars into Strange’s campaign, much from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s aligned Senate Leadership Fund.
But a rival group, run by allies of Stephen K. Bannon, the former Trump advisor, backs Moore, turning Tuesday’s GOP runoff into a trial run for several upcoming outsider-versus-establishment contests to be waged in Arizona, Nevada and other states ahead of the 2018 midterm election.
The race also marks a new kind of power struggle for the hearts and minds of Trump voters — one that pits Bannon, an influential figure in the president’s campaign, against Trump himself.
Trump’s endorsement was once seen as making Strange a shoo-in for the job. But now it’s unclear whether voter loyalty to the president can overcome skepticism about “Big Luther,” as Alabamans call the 6-foot-9 senator.
“I was a big Trump supporter -- and still am -- but he's wrong on this one,” said Jeff Hopper, a gun rights activist who brought his family to hear Moore speak at a Christian high school in Florence, Ala., where cotton grows in fields along the highway.
“Quite frankly I’m a little bit disappointed that Donald Trump has decided to come out on his side.”
Despite Trump’s endorsement, which Strange has made a central part of his campaign, many voters here view him as an uninspiring mainstream politician being forced on them by McConnell and others.
It didn’t help that Strange was appointed by former Gov. Robert Bentley, who at the time was embroiled in an ethics scandal that many believed Strange’s public integrity unit was investigating. Bentley avoided impeachment by resigning soon after Strange’s appointment.
The temporary appointment to Sessions’ old Senate seat was intended to give Strange a head start in the race. Instead it has tarnished his image.
Moore, on the other hand, appeals to Bannon’s preference for disrupters like Trump. Now that Bannon has left the White House and resumed his war on the Washington establishment at the Breitbart News website, helping Moore also gives Bannon another opportunity to frustrate McConnell and other GOP leaders. Bannon and Moore met recently in Washington.
“This is a real opportunity to set the tone for the Trump coalition of candidates,” said Eric Beach, a GOP operative from California who runs the pro-Trump Great America Alliance and its PAC.
The group recently hired a top Bannon aide as a senior advisor and is running TV ads supporting Moore and bashing Strange. It is launching a Sarah Palin-headlined bus tour ahead of Tuesday’s vote.
Strategists say the bruising battle may create an opening for Democrat Doug Jones, the former U.S. attorney in Birmingham, who reinvestigated the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 and won convictions against two former Ku Klux Klan members decades after that pivotal moment in the civil rights movement. It would be a stunning turn of events in red-state Alabama.
“Anything’s possible,” said Sen. Richard C. Shelby, who was the state’s last Democrat elected to the Senate in 1992 before he switched to the Republican Party.
At a Saturday morning meeting of the Baldwin County GOP, just across the bay from the faded charm of downtown Mobile, Strange dutifully checked the boxes of his resume – his work as lead counsel for the Gulf states after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and creating a public integrity unit that toppled Alabama leaders.
Strange is warm and chatty on a personal level, but as a candidate he’s sometimes what Trump himself might mock as “low-energy,” particularly in comparison to the firebrand Moore. He’s more passionate talking about his grandkids than discussing his support of legislation to make it easier to purchase firearm silencers.
Trump’s blessing is now seen as Strange’s main hope of winning, though recent polling shows the race has narrowed amid attack ads on Moore about the handling of funds related to a religious-liberties charity he ran.
“I cannot be more proud of the endorsement of our president,” Strange told the small crowd. “Every time I see him he asks about how are my great friends in Mobile doing?... He just loves Alabama, wants us to be successful.”
In a tweet Wednesday, Trump said he looked forward to Friday’s rally and added, “I am supporting ‘Big’ Luther Strange because he was so loyal & helpful to me!”
Strange said backlash over his appointment comes mainly from allies of elected officials that his public corruption unit booted from office.
“Clearly there was no impropriety any way, and the facts just kind of speak for themselves,” he said in an interview.
Where Strange has often failed to excite voters, Moore has proved too controversial for many. For some Republicans, almost anyone would be better than Moore.
“I go back to that line in the movie with Marlon Brando on the ship: ‘Let’s just throw the Bible-thumping SOB overboard,’” said Dan Benton, 78, a retired lawyer in Fairhope.
At Moore’s Florence rally, the former judge outlined all the wrongs he sees in Washington and “spiritual wickedness in high places.” He warned of “the awful calamity of abortion and sodomy and perverse behavior and murders and shootings and road rage” as “a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins.”
In response to a question from one of the only African Americans in the audience — who asked when Moore thought America was last “great” -- Moore acknowledged the nation’s history of racial divisions, but said: “I think it was great at the time when families were united — even though we had slavery — they cared for one another…. Our families were strong, our country had a direction.”
At the same event, Moore referred to Native Americans and Asian Americans as “reds and yellows,” and earlier this year he suggested the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were divine punishment.
Moore tends to prefer his interpretation of Christian Scripture to laws and court orders, which has twice put him out of a job for defying federal court rulings.
It’s a popular stance among some voters. After Moore was removed from the Alabama Supreme Court in 2003 for refusing to abide by a federal order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from a state courthouse, voters elected him chief justice again in 2012. Then he was suspended for defying the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling legalizing same-sex marriage and resigned.
“If they can make it between two men, they can make it between five men,” he reasoned Sunday.
Jim and Anne Bevis, semiretired ministers, see Moore’s rise as another example of a “silent majority” bucking the establishment, just the way they viewed Trump.
“We trust him,” agreed Angela Broyles, who runs a small publishing house.
Some forgive Trump’s endorsement and hope he’ll change his mind. But that does not appear likely.
Democrats predict the bitter GOP primary, fueled by vicious ad campaigns funded by outside groups, will work in their favor in the December general election.
“Our campaign is right on track,” Jones said in an interview at his campaign headquarters in Birmingham. “As people have seen what has happened in this state, I think they want someone who is not going to embarrass them.”
Moore, though, sees his race as the start of a revival in GOP politics.