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 TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE 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 StrangeThe biggest political upsets of the decade State ‘certificate of need’ laws need to go GOP frets over nightmare scenario for Senate primaries 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 McConnellSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote GOP senator to try to reverse requirement that Pentagon remove Confederate names from bases No, ‘blue states’ do not bail out ‘red states’ MORE (R-Ky.).


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 SessionsMcCabe, Rosenstein spar over Russia probe Rosenstein takes fire from Republicans in heated testimony Rosenstein defends Mueller appointment, role on surveillance warrants 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 CruzSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote The Hill’s Morning Report – Trump’s public standing sags after Floyd protests GOP senators introduce resolution opposing calls to defund the police 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 CornynSenate headed for late night vote amid standoff over lands bill Koch-backed group launches ad campaign to support four vulnerable GOP senators Tim Scott to introduce GOP police reform bill next week 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 BrooksOvernight Defense: Senate confirms US military’s first African American service chief | Navy to ban display of Confederate flags | GOP lawmakers urge Trump not to cut troops in Germany Republicans urge Trump to reject slashing US troop presence in Germany Conservative lawmakers press Trump to suspend guest worker programs for a year 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 Trump 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.

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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.”