Trump endorsement puts new spin on fierce Alabama Senate race

Andrew Bahl
Sen. Luther Strange, R-Ala., at the Capitol, July 27, 2017. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)

Sen. Luther Strange is a big man. The 6-foot-9-inch former state attorney general played college basketball at Tulane and towers over nearly everyone else in the Senate hallways.

And on Tuesday night, “Big Luther” picked up a big endorsement — President Trump’s — in his bid to hold onto his seat, vacated by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Trump told his 35 million Twitter followers he was offering his “complete and total” support for Strange’s campaign.

As voters head to the polls next week, Strange is fighting to place among the top two vote-getters in the GOP primary and ensure he advances to the Sept. 26 runoff.

A poll released Monday showed former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore leading the race with 30 percent, with both Strange and Rep. Mo Brooks hovering around 20 percent.

Although Trump’s approval rating is dismal nationally, his nod is a big get for Strange in the heavily Republican state. Strange’s campaign team quickly released an ad featuring Trump’s endorsement. 

“Historically, Alabamians have resented endorsements. … However, in this case, Trump is undoubtedly extremely popular in Alabama,” Steve Flowers, a political commentator and former GOP state legislator, told Yahoo News. “Even though the rest of the country thinks of him as a clown, he seems to resonate well.”

He added, “The bottom line on the endorsement is it does help Luther Strange solidify his position in the runoff.”

But Brooks says Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., misled Trump to secure the endorsement for Strange.  

“I believe Mitch McConnell put together an offer that President Trump could not refuse,” he told Yahoo News. “What the details of Mitch McConnell’s offer may have been I cannot say.”

Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks announces his candidacy for the U.S. Senate in Huntsville. (Photo: Bob Gathany/AL.com via AP)

Brooks and Moore have blasted the D.C. establishment, tying themselves to Trump and painting Strange as part of a do-nothing GOP caucus that couldn’t dismantle Obamacare. Both have been critical of McConnell and have indicated that, if elected, they would not vote for him as majority leader.

“Mitch McConnell has a job to do, a job as majority leader, and he has failed at that job,” Brooks said. “The Senate is a place where the Republican agenda, the conservative agenda and President Donald Trump’s legislative agenda have all gone to die. With the exception of the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, there hasn’t been a lot of difference between the leadership of Mitch McConnell on the one hand or [Democratic leader] Chuck Schumer on the other. We’re in the same position either way.”

Brooks said there were “a dozen or two” members he would rather support for majority leader, including Mike Lee, R-Utah, Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Ben Sasse, R-Neb.

McConnell and the campaign arm of Senate Republicans have pledged to protect their party’s incumbents. And as an added incentive, a strident conservative like Moore or Brooks could make the fractured GOP caucus even more unruly.

A pro-McConnell super-PAC, Senate Leadership Fund, has gone into overdrive in an effort to boost Strange. The PAC is reportedly set to spend $8 million promoting Strange and wounding his two closest competitors.

Flowers said whoever wins will vote the Republican line on key issues, but that Moore or Brooks would be unlikely to forget McConnell’s multimillion dollar bet against them.

“They would have a hard time voting against Republicans on litmus test, hot-button issues, they’d be ardent as anyone about abortion, immigration,” Flowers said. “As far as being a soldier for Mitch McConnell, McConnell has thrown down the gauntlet with those two guys, and … they’re not going to forget that. He’s going to have an enemy in the caucus.”

Another issue is the fact that former Republican Gov. Robert Bentley appointed Strange to fill Sessions’ seat while under investigation for ethics violations. The man previously charged with leading that probe? Luther Strange. He has denied cutting a deal with Bentley and said his appointment to the Senate had no bearing on the investigation. Bentley later resigned amid escalating accusations that he misused state resources as part of an affair with a female aide.

“I asked the team I put together to follow the truth wherever it led. They did. So the governor resigned,” Strange said last month.

The other top candidates are no stranger to controversy either. Moore was removed from his judgeship in 2003 after refusing to take down a monument of the Ten Commandments he commissioned, despite being ordered to do so by a federal judge.

He later regained his position on the state high court but was again suspended in 2016 for directing the state’s probate judges to enforce Alabama’s ban on same-sex marriage. Far from playing down these incidents, Moore has used them to play up his conservative bona fides and has managed to construct an ardent base among social conservatives.

GOP candidate for U.S. Senate Roy Moore speaks during a candidates’ forum in Valley, Ala., Aug. 3, 2017. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)

“The people know I will stand and do what I said I would do,” Moore told the Athens News-Courier. “I’ve suffered for it and I will uphold the rights and liberties of the state of Alabama.”

And Brooks was one of the members of Congress practicing on a Virginia baseball field when a gunman opened fire in June, wounding House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., and three others. The attack gave Brooks a wave of publicity, which he tried to capitalize on in a television ad last month.

“June 14: A Bernie Sanders supporter fires on Republican congressman. Mo Brooks gives his belt as a tourniquet to help the wounded. What’s the liberal media immediately asking?” the ad read.

The ad cut to Brooks talking with reporters after the shooting, with one media member asking if the event changed his views opposing gun control. Brooks gave a defense of the Second Amendment.

The spot garnered headlines and criticism from many, including some members of Scalise’s staff, for trying to use the shooting for political purposes.

Potentially more damaging for Brooks in the state, however, have been ads from the Strange campaign showing Brooks criticizing Trump. Brooks initially endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz in last year’s GOP primary.

“I don’t think you can trust Donald Trump with anything he says. Now, why do I say that? It’s because of his track record,” Brooks told MSNBC in February 2016. He later supported Trump in the general election.

Brooks argued he remains a better supporter of Trump, despite the president’s endorsement of Strange.

“In the general election, I was a stronger supporter of President Trump [than Strange],” Brooks said, noting he raised money on Trump’s behalf in Florida.

“This is such a unique election,” Flowers said. Of Strange and Brooks, he remarked: “They may not be able to as easily beat Moore as they think they can.”

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