Trump will campaign Friday night in Huntsville alongside Sen. Luther Strange — a recent appointee who has based his entire campaign on his allegiance with the President.
Trump’s popularity is Strange’s strongest asset against Moore, who has over decades developed a loyal following in Alabama based on his message of making Christianity prominent in public policy-making and restricting LGBT rights.
In a debate against Moore on Thursday night, Strange boasted that he’d spent 30 minutes on the phone with Trump the previous night.
“We’ve developed a close, personal friendship. We both come from the same background, the same mission, the same motivation to make this country great again,” Strange said.
“We’ve sort of bonded,” he said. “I’ve not been in Washington as long as the President has. He’s learned the ways of Washington the hard way — lots of criticism, lots of people standing in the way — and so have I.”
“Senator Luther Strange has gone up a lot in the polls since I endorsed him a month ago. Now a close runoff. He will be great in D.C.,” Trump tweeted.
He reiterated his boast Friday: “Will be in Alabama tonight. Luther Strange has gained mightily since my endorsement, but will be very close. He loves Alabama, and so do I!”
Moore, meanwhile, hit Strange for being slow to support Trump’s calls for the elimination of the Senate rules requiring 60 votes for legislation to move forward — a threshold that has given Republicans, who hold 52 seats, no way to advance some bills without Democratic support.
He said he’d more effectively carry out Trump’s agenda, even without a personal relationship.
“I can’t tell you what the President thinks. I can’t tell you every move he makes — when he goes to the bathroom, when he doesn’t,” Moore said.
Alabama race will impact Republicans nationally
For the Republican Party nationally, though, the contours of the contest are far less important than what a Moore victory could mean for the party’s brand.
In comments that underscored some within the GOP’s fears that Moore could cost the party support, particularly outside the Bible Belt, Moore warned Thursday night that “transgender troops in our bathrooms and inclusiveness” have harmed the military and declared that “God is the only source of our law.”
“Our foundation has been shaken,” Moore said. “Crime, corruption, immorality, abortion, sodomy, sexual perversion sweep our land.”
Moore bashed Strange for following that high court ruling as Alabama’s attorney general. “He caved. He did not stand,” Moore said.
Strange, meanwhile, boasted of defending “our precious religious liberty” by litigating on behalf of a Christian broadcasting company that opposed Obamacare’s mandate that insurance plans cover contraception.
Moore, widely known across Alabama, finished first in an August primary with 39% of the vote — 25,000 votes ahead of Strange. Since then, he’s won the endorsement of Rep. Mo Brooks, the third-place finisher, whose strength in his northern Alabama district makes places like Huntsville, where Trump will visit Friday and Vice President Mike Pence has planned a stop Monday, a battleground.
But top White House staffer Rick Dearborn, a former Sessions chief of staff, persuaded Trump that Strange’s support on immigration and budget issues and the potential that a Senator Moore could become a nuisance meant sticking with Strange was in Trump’s interests.
Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker later visited the White House and told Trump that supporting Strange publicly would send a signal to future endangered GOP incumbents that Trump could boost their political standing. And Trump was shown polling indicating that the race had tightened.
The role Mitch McConnell is playing
The race is the first of several tests for Republican senators who are facing primary contests — and where the challenger has made opposition to McConnell a centerpiece of his campaign.
Spending in the race has far exceeded most primaries, with the Mitch McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund super PAC pumping $8 million into the effort to boost Strange and diminish Moore.
Moore said the Senate majority leader is to blame for the failure, thus far, to repeal former President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.
“President Trump’s being cut off in his office. He’s being redirected by people like McConnell who do not support his agenda — who will not support his agenda in the future,” he said.
Strange shot back that to suggest Trump “is being manipulated by Mitch McConnell is insulting to the President.”
Strange alluded to Bannon’s support for Moore on the debate stage Thursday.
“Many of the people who are supporting you look like the unemployment line at the White House,” he said. “They were fired.”
As the two closed their moderator-free debate Thursday, Moore said that “there is a God in Heaven that’s in this campaign.”
Strange shot back that he believes God is on both sides of the contest. But, he added: “The President is on my side.”