Strange struggles for Trump support in Ala. race

Strange struggles for Trump support in Ala. race
© Keren Carrion

Sen. Luther StrangeLuther Johnson StrangeGOP rushes to cut ties to Moore Cruz’s Democratic challenger fundraises off support of Roy Moore Moore digs in amid mounting GOP criticism MORE (R-Ala.) is racing to win more help from President Trump ahead of the Alabama Senate primary runoff, as Trump keeps his distance from the intraparty fight.

Trump endorsed Strange before Alabama’s Republican primary in August, helping Strange reach second place and secure a spot in the runoff against former Alabama state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore. But Trump has hardly lifted a finger since, frustrating the senator’s allies.

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The president still has not announced plans to travel to Alabama to stump on Strange’s behalf. He has promised to do so, Politico reported Friday, but the two sides haven’t been able to agree on a date with only two weeks left before the Sept. 26 runoff. (Whoever wins the Republican nomination will be the heavy favorite in the Dec. 12 general election.)

With polls suggesting that Strange is behind in the race, time is running out for Trump to boost Strange’s campaign. 

Meanwhile, Trump’s relationship with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell expects Paul to return to Senate next week Former Hill staff calls for mandatory harassment training Gaming the odds of any GOP tax bill getting signed into law MORE (R-Ky.), Strange’s most prominent Washington backer, continues to sour as Trump allies and congressional GOP critics of the Republican leadership have started to back Moore.

Strange has spent the past week trying to tie himself more closely to Trump, backing Trump’s call to end the Senate filibuster and hoping to nudge the president back into the fray. 

“[Strange] has been fighting for Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDems win from coast to coast Falwell after Gillespie loss: 'DC should annex' Northern Virginia Dems see gains in Virginia's House of Delegates MORE from day one on the floor of the United States Senate,” said Perry Hooper, a Strange supporter and a former Alabama co-chairman for Trump’s presidential campaign.

“Hopefully, that message will resonate with the president and he’ll fly into the great state of Alabama to tell the great people here that he needs Sen. Strange as his leader on the floor,” Hooper said.

The senator, who was appointed in February to fill the seat after Trump tapped Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsCurtis wins Chaffetz's former Utah House seat Overnight Cybersecurity: What we learned from Carter Page's House Intel testimony | House to mark up foreign intel reform law | FBI can't access Texas shooter's phone | Sessions to testify at hearing amid Russia scrutiny FBI can’t unlock Texas shooter’s phone MORE for attorney general, has pointed to the presidential endorsement as proof that he’s the best candidate to carry out Trump’s agenda in Congress. 

Moore has the backing of hardcore Republican activists and evangelical voters, thanks to his role in high-profile religious liberty clashes. Now Strange hopes to use the Trump endorsement to generate some excitement for his own side.

But with Trump on the sidelines, Strange has to make the case himself. Since recording a robocall for the senator, Trump hasn’t significantly engaged with the race.

The morning after the primary election, Trump struck an uncommitted tone on the race by tweeting congratulations to both Moore and Strange. Later, he sent a follow-up message calling Strange “Strong on Wall & crime,” but he hasn’t publicly commented on the race since.

A Trump trip to Alabama could go a long way to help Strange, who finds himself trailing in all five public primary runoff polls. 

The president’s favorability ratings are still sky-high among Republicans, and Trump’s presence could help to turn out voters who are passionate about Trump but lukewarm on his pick for the Senate seat.

Politico reported late Friday evening that Trump had promised to hold a campaign rally in Alabama to support Strange — similar to the campaign rally he held recently in Arizona amid a feud with Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeGOP rushes to cut ties to Moore Flake on Moore defenders: 'This cannot be who we are' GOP senators raise concerns over tax plan MORE (R-Ariz.). But the report notes that Strange’s sagging poll numbers are making White House aides wary of tying Trump to a potential loser. The rally promise, so far, remains unfulfilled.

Trump might be out of the picture, but Strange is still trying to tie himself to the president. The clearest example of Strange’s Trump-ward tilt came last week, when the senator bucked McConnell and backed Trump’s call for an end to the Senate’s legislative filibuster.

The rule, which allows the minority party to mandate a 60-vote threshold on most legislation, has frustrated Trump throughout the early months of his presidency. He’s attacked the rule as an unfair impediment to his agenda, even though his ObamaCare repeal legislation would only have required 51 votes to pass the Senate.

Strange initially came out in support of the filibuster, siding with McConnell’s push to protect the rule. But he announced in a statement last week that “conversations with the president” led him to change his mind “in order to help President Trump’s agenda through Congress.”

Moore campaign chairman Bill Armistead seized on the reversal as proof that Strange is running scared.

“Desperate people do desperate things, and he obviously thought he was doing what Mitch McConnell wanted him to do when he signed on to support the 60-vote rule,” he told The Hill.

“When he saw that wasn’t going his way, he tried to jump out.”

Strange’s campaign has been in a flurry of activity in an attempt to prevent Moore from framing himself as a outsider and Strange as a creature of the “swamp.”

Moore is a firebrand who regularly courted controversy from the bench, first for disregarding a court order to remove a Ten Commandments statue he commissioned for public land and more recently for refusing to follow the Supreme Court’s landmark 2013 case legalizing same-sex marriage.

Through the campaign, the religious conservative has framed himself as a Washington outsider and painted Strange as a politician corrupted already by Washington and McConnell, a frequent target for conservatives.

Moore’s attacks on McConnell have wooed a handful of antiestablishment Republicans into his corner. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), an avid Trump supporter, backed Moore last week. A few days later, House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) backed the judge after meeting with Breitbart News head and former Trump chief strategist Stephen Bannon, another Moore supporter. 

Strange has sought to undercut that dynamic with his latest messaging meant to pull Moore down into the “swamp” with the rest of the politicians. Last week, in his first television ad of the runoff, Strange’s campaign ran down a laundry list of alleged improprieties by Moore.

“Investigated for using his office to raise money for personal gain [and] fought to increase his taxpayer-funded salary. Spent 80 percent of his Christian foundation’s contribution to pay himself in one year, paid himself $1 million, traveled on private jets,” the ad’s narrator says. “Forty-year politician Roy Moore in the Montgomery swamp. Roy Moore: it’s all about him. That’s risky for us.”

Strange’s campaign launched a digital ad needling Moore for attending a fundraiser hosted by conservative pundit Alan Keyes, who has repeatedly criticized Trump. The ad includes a mash-up of some of Keyes’s most critical television interviews about Trump.

The push is funded with Strange’s overwhelming monetary advantage in the race. The senator outraised Moore by more than $2 million during the first round of the primary, and continues to outspend him during the runoff.  

But even as he blankets the airwaves and builds what is described by observers as a better ground game, the complicated dynamics of a special election runoff make the race hard to predict. That’s why Strange and his allies hope that Trump starts putting some force behind his endorsement.

“Hedging your bets in politics doesn’t work — the fact that he hasn’t tried to revisit the endorsement means he clearly supports Luther Strange,” said one Senate GOP aide supportive of Trump.

“Luther Strange can very well win this, and Donald Trump would look like a kingmaker.”