HUNTSVILLE, Ala.—President Donald Trump traveled here on Friday night to tear into the Republican establishment, while offering his full-throated support for its choice in the Alabama GOP Senate runoff election.
The race pits the president against his most prominent boosters, including former chief strategist Stephen Bannon, whose far-right web site Breitbart News has gone scorched-earth against Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL), the president’s pick to hold the Senate seat once occupied by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Bannon joins former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and ex-Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka, among other pro-Trump outside groups, in backing former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, who won the GOP primary last month but did not win 50 percent of the vote—leading to Tuesday’s runoff against Strange, who came in a distant second.
It took serious convincing on the part of Republicans in Washington to get Trump to the point where he would not just tweet his support for Strange, but appear alongside him in his home state. And the appearance was a gamble for the president. Despite Trump’s obvious star power in Alabama, the RealClearPolitics polling average shows Moore with a comfortable lead of eight points.
It goes without saying that Alabama is Trump country, and ground zero for Trump’s base of voters that propelled him to the presidency. Tuesday’s election essentially pits Trump’s supporters against each other.
Trump acknowledged the unusual nature of a sitting president picking sides in a Senate primary—especially in a deep-red state like Alabama, where he won by more than 30 points last November. But Trump values loyalty above all else, and Strange fits that bill.
“The last thing I want to do is be involved in a primary… There’s something called loyalty,” Trump said, recalling an instance in which Trump called Strange to ensure he would support efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare. According to Trump, Strange told him to focus his efforts on other GOP senators because he was all-in for the president. Trump called that “the coolest thing.”
Trump’s speech here came on the heels of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) once again bucking his own party by announcing his opposition to Senate Republicans’ latest attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare. The president didn’t hold back in voicing his displeasure with the senator, whom he criticized vehemently after McCain cast the deciding vote against an Obamacare repeal in July.
“They gave me a list of 10 people that were absolute no’s. There are 10 Republican senators. Now, John McCain—John McCain was not on the list, and that was a totally unexpected thing. Honestly, terrible,” Trump said as the crowd booed emphatically at the mention of McCain. “Repeal and replace, because John McCain, you look at his last campaign and it was all about repeal and replace. So he decided to do something different, and that’s fine… We’re going to do it eventually.”
The Alabama race underscores the very real divide among Trump’s core supporters in a state where his popularity is much higher than the national average. The president decided to cast the race as a referendum on himself, warning his supporters that if Strange loses, “they’re going to go after me.”
The Daily Beast spoke with more than two dozen rally-goers outside the Von Braun Center, and just a few of them said they’ve decided to vote for Strange in Tuesday’s runoff. The rest were either noncommittal or firmly in the camp of Moore—and only came to the Strange rally to see the president.
Peter Grove is voting for Moore. Grove, 60, rode on his bike outside the arena starting at 3:00 a.m. Attached to his bike were signs that dubbed Strange “Lucifer Strange” and an “Alabama Swamp Monster.”
“I’ve got no problem with the president endorsing Luther Strange to gain a little bit of political capital from those other political hacks that he has to deal with. Mitch McConnell is in that crew,” Grove told The Daily Beast, referring to the Senate majority leader. “I mean, [Trump is] dealing with about 50 to 60 percent of Republicans that are on the same train with the Democrats, just working against him and trying to undermine him.”
Strange sought to distance himself from the GOP establishment, in response to Moore’s attempts to tie him to McConnell. In a short address before Trump took the stage, Strange said Trump is supporting him as part of an effort to “stand up to Mitch McConnell.” It was a curious remark, as McConnell and the Senate Leadership Fund are supporting Strange. Trump also attempted to push back on efforts by Moore and his supporters to tie Strange to the Senate Republican leader.
“He doesn’t know Mitch McConnell at all. Luther is a tough, tough cookie. He doesn’t kowtow to anyone,” Trump said. “He’s not a friend of Mitch McConnell. He doesn’t know Mitch McConnell until very recently.”
But the president went on to hedge his bets on Strange—at a rally intended to boost Strange’s candidacy, no less. Trump suggested he “might’ve made a mistake” in backing the incumbent.
“If his opponent wins, I’ll be here campaigning like hell for him,” Trump said, adding: “Luther will definitely win. Roy has a very good chance of not winning in the general election.”
Trump was referencing polling that shows Doug Jones, the Democratic candidate, giving Moore a run for his money in a head-to-head matchup. It is expected that Strange would defeat Jones handily.
Moore has a solid, enthusiastic base of support in the state. Voters here admire him for his strong stances on social issues—many of which have given him national attention. In 2003, Moore was removed from the bench after he refused to take down a Ten Commandments monument from the court building. And just last year, he was suspended for refusing to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. He has also said as recently as 2015 that “homosexuality should be illegal.”
Strange—the former Alabama attorney general who was appointed to the Senate seat that was vacated by Sessions—is known in Washington as a team player who largely falls in line with both Republican leadership as well as with the president. That’s why Strange has the support of sitting GOP senators as well as McConnell and the Senate Leadership Fund. Those already in Washington worry that Moore, with his firebrand anti-establishment track record, could disrupt—to the point of derailing—the GOP agenda over his hardline views.
Strange has brushed off the support Moore has from the most prominent members of Trump’s base, saying the president’s backing is what really matters.
“I think [support from] the president and the vice president says it all,” Strange told The Daily Beast earlier this week, referring to Trump’s visit here and Mike Pence’s scheduled appearance on Monday.
While McConnell and Trump were openly feuding with each other over the summer, Trump announced his endorsement of Strange before the Republican primary, which pit Strange and Moore against eight other candidates. Moore won the primary handily, but did not come away with more than 50 percent of the vote due in large part to the size of the GOP field as well as the substantial support that the third-place finisher, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), pulled in.
The race has consumed the state, where both the campaigns and outside groups have flooded the airwaves with advertisements. During one local news broadcast on Thursday night, The Daily Beast counted seven political ads in a row that were related to the Senate runoff.
But Trump wasn’t focused entirely on the Alabama race during his speech here on Friday. The president referenced NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protests by kneeling during the national anthem, saying he wishes football franchise owners could “get that son of a bitch off the field,” referring to players who protest during the anthem.