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Once a Trump critic, Ala. rep faces runoff with his support

Once a Trump critic, Ala. rep faces runoff with his support
© Greg Nash

Rep. Martha RobyMartha Dubina RobyInsurgency shakes up Democratic establishment Dem House candidate claims Russians tried to hack campaign website Tag Obama for the rise of Trump, and now, socialism MORE is favored to prevail in Tuesday’s GOP primary runoff in Alabama, with President TrumpDonald John TrumpKey takeaways from the Arizona Senate debate Major Hollywood talent firm considering rejecting Saudi investment money: report Mattis says he thought 'nothing at all' about Trump saying he may leave administration MORE’s endorsement — and deep-pocketed Washington allies — providing critical support to the one-time Trump critic.

Roby, now in her fourth term in Congress, had faced major backlash from conservative voters after saying in 2016 she wouldn’t vote for Trump when the then-Republican presidential nominee was heard bragging about groping and kissing women without consent in a leaked “Access Hollywood” tape.

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Her disavowal of Trump has since continued to dog her, forcing her into a runoff on Tuesday against former Rep. Bobby Bright, the Democrat-turned-Republican whom Roby unseated in 2010, after she failed to win a majority of the June primary vote in Alabama’s heavily agrarian 2nd District.

But Roby, 41, won a critical lifeline after Trump endorsed her last month, lauding her as a “consistent and reliable vote” for his agenda.

Trump remains popular in deep-red Alabama, but the state also delivered the president an electoral setback after he backed appointed Sen. Luther StrangeLuther Johnson StrangeTrump: 'I could pick a woman,' and she could be accused of misconduct Ann Coulter believes Kushner wrote anonymous op-ed bashing Trump Mulvaney: Trump regularly asks why Roy Moore lost MORE (R) in last year’s special election to fill the seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsFBI investigated whether McCabe leaked info about Flynn and Trump to media Ex-Senate Intel staffer pleads guilty to lying to feds over contacts with journalists House Judiciary chairman threatens to subpoena Rosenstein MORE (R).

Strange lost the GOP nomination to former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreFormer campaign aide to New Jersey governor says she was sexually assaulted by his ex-staffer Mellman: When questions don’t mean what they say CNN's Toobin: It's Trump's ‘nature’ to not believe accusations of sexual assault MORE, who went on to lose to now-Sen. Doug Jones (D) after allegations that Moore pursued romantic and sexual relationships with women decades his junior, including one who was a minor at the time.

Republican strategists in the state said that endorsements aren’t typically helpful for candidates in Alabama because people there don’t like being told how to vote, but they believe Trump’s backing is likely an exception as loyalty to the president increasingly becomes a key litmus test in contested GOP primaries this year.

“I think probably the Trump endorsement wipes the slate clean for her and gives her a clear path to victory,” said Steve Flowers, a political commentator and former GOP state legislator.

The winner of the runoff will face Democrat Tabitha Isner, a business analyst and first-time candidate, but the Republican nominee will likely cruise to victory in November since Trump won the district by more than 30 points.

Roby was first elected to Congress as part of the Tea Party wave of 2010, but she faced her toughest reelection in 2016 after rescinding her support for Trump, with tens of thousands of people casting write-in votes as a rebuke to Roby.

The June primary showed not all conservative voters have forgiven her. Roby failed to clear the 50 percent threshold needed to win the Republican primary even as she has been a fervent supporter of Trump’s agenda, voting with him 96.5 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight and visiting the White House a number of times.

Trump’s support could prove critical for Roby. His endorsements have most recently elevated Rep. Dan Donovan (R-N.Y.) and South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) in their respective primaries. Meanwhile, Rep. Mark SanfordMarshall (Mark) Clement SanfordOvernight Defense — Presented by The Embassy of the United Arab Emirates — Haley shocks Washington with resignation | Turkish officials reportedly conclude Saudis killed journalist | Trump eyes second Kim summit after midterms GOP on timing of Haley’s announcement: 'Unusual' and 'odd' On The Money: House passes 4B spending bill to avert shutdown | Trump 'not happy' after Fed's latest rate hike | Trump says he refused meeting with Trudeau MORE (R-S.C.), a vocal Trump critic, was defeated in June by Republican Katie Arrington, though Trump didn’t endorse her until hours before the primary.

Although Roby has consistently voiced her support for the president, she hasn’t disavowed her criticism of Trump in 2016.

“I have no regrets, but let me just say, the campaign is long over,” Roby said in a Fox News interview last week. “We have been governing, and President Donald Trump is just that. He’s president of the United States. Of course I want him to be successful, because when he’s successful, we’re all successful.”

Roby allies said they felt confident about her prospects in the runoff even before Trump’s endorsement. Aside from his backing, Roby also holds a huge financial edge over Bright. From mid-May to late June, Roby raised $746,000 and spent $683,000. That’s a huge money advantage over Bright, who raised $19,566 and spent $30,343 during that same period.

Roby also has outside help from the influential U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has spent nearly $200,000 on ads supporting her in the final week of the runoff. And Vice President Pence recorded a robocall supporting Roby that started airing over the weekend, according to BuzzFeed.

Plus, Bright faces his own obstacles as a former Democrat who served in the House from 2009 to 2011. He has been dogged by his past vote for House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiOn The Money: Deficit hits six-year high of 9 billion | Yellen says Trump attacks threaten Fed | Affordable housing set for spotlight in 2020 race Deficit hits six-year high of 9 billion: Treasury GOP has not done a good job of selling economic achievements, says ex-Trump adviser MORE (D-Calif.) as Speaker in 2009, with the Chamber of Commerce airing ads tying him closely to Pelosi.

Bright has argued that he’s been conservative even as a Democrat, touting his vote against ObamaCare and describing his vote for Pelosi as “procedural.”

In an interview with The Hill, Bright said Roby was trying to “mislead” voters over his record and paint him as still being a Democrat.

“I was conservative then, and I’m conservative now,” Bright said. “[Constituents] know I’m not an elitist or establishment in Washington.”

Alabama Republicans describe Bright, who also served as a former mayor of Montgomery, as a good retail politician with a base of support, but they say it may be hard for him to overcome his past.

“I don’t see how a former Democrat picks up steam in a Republican district against a president who is very popular,” said Jonathan Gray, a GOP strategist in Alabama.

“I think he’s got too much baggage. It’s difficult to be an Obama Democrat and turn around and run against a Trump Republican.”