Rival GOP factions face off in Alabama

It’s judgment day in Alabama, where a primary runoff fight has opened new rifts in the Republican Party between President Trump and some of his most dedicated supporters.

Roy Moore, the controversial former state Supreme Court judge, comes into Election Day with the edge over Sen. Luther StrangeLuther Johnson StrangeRoy Moore Facebook page shares provocative memes on NFL anthem protests Poll: Moore has lead, Dems see opportunity in Ala. Senate race GOP establishment doubts Bannon’s primary powers MORE, thanks to a cadre of diehard supporters that could prove even more valuable in what’s expected to be a low-turnout election. Insurgent conservatives, including former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, have adopted Moore as they look to send a warning shot to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGun proposal picks up GOP support Children’s health-care bill faces new obstacles Dems see Trump as potential ally on gun reform MORE (R-Ky.).

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But Strange and his deep-pocketed allies are banking on superior organization and a full-court press by Trump’s administration in the final days to put him ahead.

“The momentum seems to be heading Moore’s way — it’s always been in his corner,” said former Alabama state Rep. Steve Flowers (R).

“And the Strange campaign has done everything it can — there’s no stone they haven’t turned over.”

Strange’s campaign has centered on drawing support from Trump and the Republican establishment, a double-edged sword in any Republican primary contest that risks alienating restless Republican grass roots.

McConnell directed groups like the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) to treat Strange like the incumbent, even though he was only recently appointed to the seat once held by Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsIntel leaders: Collusion still open part of investigation Republicans jockey for position on immigration Biden to Alabama: No more extremist senators MORE.

That gave the freshman senator resources from both the NRSC and McConnell’s allied super PAC, Senate Leadership Fund (SLF). McConnell also played an integral role in the push to convince Trump to endorse Strange.

Strange’s allies had poured almost $11 million into the race as of Friday, including almost $8 million from SLF alone, according to the campaign finance group Issue One. And Strange’s campaign organization has outspent Moore by more than 300 percent.

That’s because a Moore victory would not only deal a significant blow to McConnell’s political organization ahead of the 2018 primary season, but also give McConnell one more unpredictable senator to handle.

Moore has made his career on being a thorn in the establishment’s side, and his campaign’s recent comments disparaging the Senate’s last-ditch ObamaCare repeal push serve as a preview of what may be to come. One Republican strategist following the race said that Moore would make Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzWhatever you think the Alabama special election means, you’re probably wrong This week: Congress gets ball rolling on tax reform Week ahead: Senators work toward deal to fix ObamaCare markets MORE (R-Texas), a notoriously difficult lawmaker for the GOP leadership to deal with, look as reliable for McConnell as Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynGun proposal picks up GOP support House bill set to reignite debate on warrantless surveillance Republicans jockey for position on immigration MORE (R-Texas), by comparison.

“He could be the Freedom Caucus of one in the Senate,” the strategist said, referring to the far-right group in the House.

It’s unclear whether the well-organized push on Strange’s behalf can defeat Moore, who has made a long career in Alabama typifying the kind of populist right-wing push that drew so many to Trump during the presidential campaign. Moore posted a double-digit lead in two polls released Monday, with one poll showing that Trump’s endorsement doesn’t appear to be moving voters significantly to Strange. 

Moore made his name with a series of high-profile clashes over religious liberty that twice cost him a seat on the state Supreme Court, first over a Ten Commandments statue and again by refusing to recognize the Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage.

Moore cruised through the primary unscathed, while Strange and his allies had to hammer a third candidate, Rep. Mo BrooksMorris (Mo) Jackson BrooksWhatever you think the Alabama special election means, you’re probably wrong GOP lawmaker pushes to end sports leagues' tax-exempt status Rep. Mo Brooks: We should end federal government support to NFL MORE (R-Ala.), to secure Strange’s runoff spot.

Strange and SLF have spent the past month chipping away at Moore by trying to tar him with allegations of impropriety and accusations that he won’t support Trump’s agenda.

Strange has put all his chips on Trump, hardly letting a minute go by without evoking his endorsement during last Thursday’s debate. So Trump’s decision to double down by traveling to Alabama for a Friday night rally and dispatching Vice President Pence for a Monday speech in Birmingham gave the campaign a jolt of energy.

“If Luther Strange were to win, you can’t hang it on anything but that Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pens op-ed on kindergartners learning tech Bharara, Yates tamp down expectations Mueller will bring criminal charges Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open MORE won it for him,” said Flowers.

“His pollsters have probably told him that his only route he has is to tie himself to Donald Trump, and he’s stayed on message.”

Appearances by both Trump and Pence gave the Strange camp some comfort in the final days, considering Trump’s sky-high approval in the state.

But while Trump praised Strange as a “real fighter and a real good guy,” he also equivocated on his own endorsement by musing that he “might have made a mistake” by backing Strange, admitting that he’ll be “campaigning like hell” for Moore if he wins and obscuring the rally’s original message by criticizing football players who kneel during the national anthem.

Moore has fought back with his own stable of supporters, led by Bannon and other prominent Republicans popular with the GOP base. Those supporters hope to both deliver a rebuke to McConnell and also energize insurgent candidates looking to run primary campaigns against Senate Republican incumbents.

There’s chatter in Bannon’s orbit about a new grass-roots “media-political nexus,” led by Bannon’s Breitbart News, pro-Trump outside groups like Great America Alliance and the House Freedom Caucus. Moore’s Alabama bid marks the first major test of that effort.

Breitbart has effectively nationalized the race, making it a proxy war between the grass roots and establishments and regularly devoting the site’s front page to the race. Bannon himself headlined a pro-Moore rally in Alabama on Monday night, where he was introduced by Brexit architect Nigel Farage.

Meanwhile, Andrew Surabian, Bannon’s former political adviser, is working with Great America on ads and rallies.

Moore landed another boost from the conservative Freedom Caucus after its chairman, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), and a handful of caucus members endorsed him.

Those forces looking to shake up the GOP feel emboldened, feeling that they’ve turned Strange, an otherwise mainstream Republican, into public enemy No. 1 on the right. Their hope is that candidates will now think twice about aligning with establishment institutions like McConnell and SLF in the future.

“All of the money in the world from the Chamber of Commerce and SLF can’t pay for an ounce of the excitement we’ve seen on the ground here,” said Surabian. “The establishment should be worried.”

But other Republicans cautioned that a Moore win might not foreshadow more primary defeats for Republican incumbents. Moore’s ardent and longtime supporters are the type of voters more likely to turn out in an off-year primary runoff, suggesting that a Moore victory will be more about Strange and Moore than Trump or McConnell.

“Most of the people that voted for Trump are Moore supporters who have known him for 25 years. … They are more dedicated to Moore than they are Trump,” Flowers said.

“The die was probably cast in the race before the race began.”