- Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
The White House is closely watching another special election that could be indicative of the challenges the GOP will face as it fights to maintain control of Congress and advance the president’s agenda.
Tuesday’s Republican Senate primary in Alabama features a candidate that has the backing of the GOP establishment and President Donald Trump himself – Sen. Luther Strange, who was appointed to fill Jeff Sessions’ seat when he became US attorney general – and one that grassroots support.
And Democrats seem poised to take advantage of the divisions wracking the Republican Party, hoping they could be competitive in the deep-red state if Strange loses a September runoff.
Trump seems to understand the importance of Tuesday night’s contest. He took to Twitter on Monday morning to endorse Strange, and has since repeatedly reinforced his support for him, saying he is “strong on Border & Wall, the military, tax cuts & law enforcement.”
“Big day in Alabama,” Trump tweeted Tuesday morning. “Vote for Luther Strange, he will be great!”
While Trump remains popular in Alabama, Strange might be hampered by the endorsement of an unpopular establishment Republican – Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Strange is currently struggling to secure enough votes to ensure a spot in the September runoff election against Roy Moore, the controversial former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, and another one of his opponents – Rep. Mo Brooks, a conservative and member of the House Freedom Caucus who is likely to place third in Tuesday’s primary – has repeatedly used Strange’s ties to McConnell to attack him. Strange is now competing with Brooks for second place and a guaranteed slot in the September runoff.
The Wall Street Journal pointed to a recent ad from Brooks in which he questioned Trump’s endorsement of Strange based on his ties to McConnell, saying, “Mr. President, isn’t it time we tell McConnell and Strange, ‘You’re fired?'”
And The New York Times noted that at a recent candidate forum in Alabama, one of Brooks’ top applause lines was his calling for McConnell to be ousted as Senate majority leader. Brooks’ campaign bus features a “Ditch Mitch” banner attached to the front.
Another unpopular Republican figure in Alabama, former Gov. Robert Bentley, has also been a factor in Strange’s struggles to secure his party’s nomination for Senate.
Bentley appointed Strange to the Senate in February to fill Sessions’ seat. He resigned shortly after, in April, amid a sex scandal centered around his misuse of campaign funds to cover up his extramarital affair with his senior political adviser, Rebekah Caldwell Mason.
Audio recordings of their intimate conversations, through which Bentley made suggestive remarks about their physical relationship, were broadcast across the internet and were met with wide ridicule. He pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors and earned the nickname “the Luv Guv” as a result.
And Strange’s former role as Alabama’s attorney general, which he held until he was elevated to the Senate, allowed him to block impeachment proceedings against Bentley. His Senate appointment is largely seen as a thank-you gift from Bentley for saving him from worse consequences.
“There was a lot of smoke there and people didn’t take to that very kindly,” Alabama state Rep. Reed Ingram told the Times.
Moore now seems set to win the most votes in Tuesday’s primary, although he’ll likely fall short of the majority he needs to win without a runoff, according to the Times.
He is also a controversial figure in Alabama politics. He was twice removed from the Alabama Supreme Court – first, for refusing federal orders to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state Supreme Court building and, more recently, for encouraging probate judges to uphold the state’s ban on same-sex marriage despite the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn it. He has been endorsed by more than 50 pastors.
In a letter posted to Moore’s campaign website, the evangelical leaders expressed their desire to see a man “who fears God” on Capitol Hill. The leaders also slammed Moore’s opponents by tying them to the GOP establishment.
“You can know a man by his enemies, and he’s made plenty – from the radical organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the ACLU to the liberal media and a handful of establishment politicians from Washington,” they wrote.
But Moore has problems of his own. Although Moore enjoys popularity among Alabama evangelical voters, Republican leaders in the state see him as a risky public relations disaster. They believe his win could fuel the anti-Trump Democratic base by electing an embarrassing Republican candidate, who would, in turn, embarrass Trump.
Although Democrats have little hope of winning a congressional seat in Alabama, they have placed their hopes in Doug Jones, who has endorsements from former Vice President Joe Biden and Georgia Rep. John Lewis. Democrats are hoping that a Moore win in Alabama could make them competitive in the state, in which Republicans haven’t lost a Senate race since 1992, according to the Times.
“If we can flip Jeff Sessions’ seat, it is going to be good for the entire Democratic Party, and it’s going to be good for the country because people will start to see there’s some rejection of what’s going on,” Jones told the Times.
The Alabama Senate primary has illuminated the deepening rifts within the Republican Party, whose base has turned against McConnell for his failure to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. And warring factions in the party – typically the establishment and moderate Republicans versus populists and hardline conservatives – make it difficult to accomplish the major items on the GOP agenda, healthcare chiefly among them.
Hoping to shift blame for the failed healthcare reform efforts, Trump has engaged in a public feud with McConnell, recently tweeting, “Can you believe that Mitch McConnell, who has screamed Repeal & Replace for 7 years, couldn’t get it done. Must Repeal & Replace ObamaCare!”
In response, McConnell criticized the White House for having “excessive expectations” and blamed “too many artificial deadlines unrelated to the reality of the legislature, which may have not been understood” for his policy missteps. The deteriorating relationship between Trump and McConnell is symptomatic of the schism between GOP congressional leaders and White House officials, whose inconsistent agendas have stalled Republican policy efforts in Washington.
Some Alabama Republicans, however, say that’s just the way things go in their party.
“I don’t know if there is such a thing as party unity within the Republican Party,” Sharon Denham, the president of the North Jefferson County Republican Club, told the Times. “That’s part of what makes us Republicans: that desire to think for ourselves and not be told what to do or how to think by somebody else.”