President Donald Trump’s initial reluctance to denounce the white supremacist groups responsible for the deadly hate-fueled violence in Charlottesville over the weekend prompted swift backlash from Republican members of Congress.
But the first real test for Trump’s grip on his base will come this week in Alabama, with a special election on Tuesday to ultimately determine the long-term occupant of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ old seat. And all signs point to continued love for the president and indifference toward his latest controversy.
Republican voters in the state are set to choose among three main candidates, all of whom, like Trump, issued lukewarm condemnations of the white supremacist violence; all of whom have pledged to shepherd the president’s agenda virtually unequivocally.
Roy Moore, a controversial former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, is expected to take the top spot, but will likely not come away with more than 50 percent of the vote, sending the contest to a runoff scheduled for next month. Competing for the second spot is Sen. Luther Strange, the incumbent who was appointed by former Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley after Jeff Sessions was chosen to be attorney general; and Rep. Mo Brooks, an outspoken Trump booster and a favorite of conservative media types like Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham.
Those are the top three candidates. There are 10 total. Only one could be described as a “Never Trump” voice in the race. And that one is so obscure as to be unrecognizable to GOP political veterans in the state.
“Of the ten Republican candidates running, I think there is one that doesn’t support President Trump and I can’t even recall his name,” Scott Stone, a veteran Alabama Republican campaign strategist not affiliated with any of the campaigns, told The Daily Beast. “Clearly, taking a ‘Never Trump’ stance in Alabama has not resulted in any degree of groundswell support.”
Tuesday’s primary is a testimony to Trump’s endurance among a slice of the electorate. And it’s made all the more remarkable by the fact that, elsewhere in the county, other Republican lawmakers are taking substantial actions to reign in the president and strip him of necessary political capital.
The winner of the primary will vie for a spot in a U.S. Senate that just recently voted 98-2 to handicap Trump’s ability to lift sanctions against nations including Russia, and where Republicans have joined with Democrats in their efforts to shield special counsel Robert Mueller from White House interference. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), who heads the very committee that is tasked with helping the primary winner win the general, offered one of the most full-throated rebukes of Trump’s tepid response to the violence in Charlottesville.
And yet, while Gardner and others were urging the president to take a more definitive stand against hate groups, Moore, Brooks, and Strange echoed the president’s broad condemnation of “violence,” “hatred,” and “bigotry.”
Both Brooks and Strange said explicitly that they stood behind Trump’s comments—which is more than Trump himself did. By Monday, the president had offered updated remarks that explicitly mentioned white supremacist hate groups.
Whose Party Is This?
The results of Tuesday’s primary may, in the end, not tell us much about this particular moment in Trump’s presidency—save that his standing in Alabama is secure. Trump has an approval rating above 50 percent in the state, and the top candidates are arguing over who supported his presidential campaign the earliest.
But it could tell us something about Trump and his relationship with his party.
Republicans in the state were shocked last Tuesday when the president lent his support to Strange, the incumbent in the race. Strange is the establishment choice, having received the backing of the Senate Leadership Fund, a group allied with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Because of that, conservatives backing Brooks and Moore have called into question why or whether Trump caved to “the swamp” that he has railed against for so long.
Brooks, who has aligned himself with the anti-McConnell crowd, outwardly begged Trump to “reconsider” his endorsement. But on Monday morning, Trump had lent his support to Strange yet again. He also recorded a robo-call on behalf of the candidate, the campaign said on Monday.
Such a move could be a reflection of the frustration Trump feels over a stalled congressional agenda. He has publicly lashed out at McConnell, suggesting that the Senate majority leader should step down if he doesn’t deliver on Trump’s top agenda items. But privately, administration officials know they need the majority leader to move tax reform and infrastructure forward, and they aren’t keen on further eroding that relationship.
But Trump also has placed himself in an advantageous position. Should Strange finish third in the primary, D.C. Republicans fear Trump will ratchet up his criticism of McConnell and blame the majority leader for convincing him to throw his political weight behind a losing candidate. Should Strange make the runoff, it is expected that the president will treat it as an affirmation of his political strength—a victory lap that local operatives say wouldn’t be entirely undeserved.
“If Luther Strange finishes second by a comfortable margin over Congressman Brooks, it will be a clear sign that President Trump still has the trust of Republican voters and that his base is still strongly behind him,” Stone said.
Even after the events in Charlottesville, the Republican party is still Trump’s party. Alabama’s election won’t change that.