BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The White House and senior Republicans are deeply worried about Sen. Luther Strange’s chances in Tuesday’s GOP runoff here — even after unleashing the full weight of the party machinery to stop his opponent, flame-throwing conservative Roy Moore.
Top administration officials and allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have spent days poring over public and private polling that shows Moore consistently leading Strange, though the race has tightened, say those familiar with the numbers.
On his way to Huntsville on Air Force One Friday to campaign for Strange, President Donald Trump was joined by a small team of aides that included Rick Dearborn, a veteran of Alabama politics, and Bill Stepien, the White House political director. Both aides, as well as a number of other administration officials, have privately expressed apprehension about the state of the race. Stepien brought a sheaf of the latest polling data.
With Strange on the ropes and time running out, the party has launched a coordinated, scorched-earth campaign to take down Moore. The sheer breadth of the anti-Moore campaign has stunned Alabama’s political class: It includes non-stop TV ads, a meticulously-crafted get-out-the-vote effort, and detailed, oppo-research-filled debate prep sessions for Strange.
Moore, a 70-year-old former state Supreme Court chief justice who rose to national fame after refusing a federal order to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from a judicial building, is a staunch social conservative who has called for McConnell’s ouster and lambasted Republican leadership. If he comes out ahead on Tuesday, mainstream Republicans worry it would instigate a broader offensive by the activist right to unseat other GOP incumbents in the 2018 midterms.
“Winning here means we’ll be able to focus our energy on defeating Democrats next year, instead of fighting useless and divisive intra-party battles,” said Steven Law, a former McConnell chief of staff who serves as president and CEO of the Senate Leadership Fund, which has spent millions of dollars in Alabama.
Strange’s advisers declined to divulge their internal polling. But they conducted surveys on Friday and Saturday and said they were confident that the race was close and that Trump’s visit provided a boost.
Much of the assault has played out on the air. During the final week of the contest, a trifecta of pro-Strange GOP groups — the Senate Leadership Fund, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and National Rifle Association — flooded the state with about $2.5 million in TV and radio ads. The barrage against the underfunded Moore went straight at his character: One Senate Leadership Fund spot portrayed Moore as a lifelong politician who had used his prominence as a former judge to cash in for himself.
Through the end of the weekend, Moore was confronting a nearly five-to-one spending deficit on the airwaves, according to media buying totals provided to POLITICO.
“This will certainly end up being the most expensive race in state history,” said Alex Schriver, a Washington-based Republican strategist who has deep experience in Alabama.
Washington Republicans have surged into the state to help Strange with get-out-the-vote efforts ahead of the election. The McConnell-controlled National Republican Senatorial Committee, which has spent over $1 million on the race, dispatched more than two dozen staffers to Alabama to knock on doors and make calls to voters during the final two weeks of the contest.
The NRA, which has a large constituency in the Deep South state, contacted its members and urged them to turn out for Strange while describing Moore as unreliable on gun rights. The group sent out fliers telling them not to “waste” their vote on Moore.
“Roy Moore doesn’t fully support your gun rights,” said the flier. “We can’t take a chance on electing Roy Moore to the U.S. Senate.”
The party has been racing to corrode Moore’s base of support, a task party strategists concede has been challenging given his long history on the state’s political scene. One region of focus has been the Huntsville area in the northern part of the state, which Moore is hoping to perform well in given his support from the local conservative congressman, Mo Brooks. The Chamber of Commerce bought billboards along a stretch of highways surrounding Huntsville touting Trump’s support for Strange.
And when Strange’s aides discussed where they wanted Trump’s Friday evening rally to be held, they chose Huntsville over Mobile and Birmingham.
Trump’s rally for Strange was seen as the kind of event that could turn the tide against Moore in the final days. Trump is overwhelmingly popular in the state, and within hours of his visit, the pro-Trump outside group America First Policies cut a digital ad highlighting Trump embracing Strange at the event.
Yet the high-profile Trump rally also carried risk for the president. With Strange struggling to excite primary voters, his allies were concerned about having empty seats at the Von Braun Center. So pro-Strange groups including the NRA and the Business Council of Alabama reached out to their supporters ahead of the event and encouraged them to attend. When Trump took the stage on Friday evening, the arena was packed.
Strange was also banking on a Lincoln-Douglas style debate with Moore — the sole onstage appearance between the two during the runoff — for a late lift. In the days leading up to the Thursday evening showdown, Strange spent hours preparing with Brett O’Donnell, a noted Republican debate coach who advised former presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Lindsey Graham.
Strange studied reams of opposition research, some of it gleaned from video of Moore’s public appearances. It allowed the incumbent to anticipate what his rival’s attacks would be. He participated in mock debates and crafted lines in which he portrayed his opponent as unprepared for the job of senator.
Moore has hammered Strange for receiving support for national Republicans, casting him as a pawn of the party establishment and especially McConnell. He has framed his campaign as a David vs. Goliath battle that would provide momentum to other insurgents if he wins.
“Everybody in Washington, as I said tonight, is watching this election,” Moore said at a post-debate rally in Montgomery with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. “The 2018 senatorial elections are coming up, and they see this could bring a change in our direction for the country. So this is a very important election.”
Moore’s side is gearing up, too. Palin, the GOP’s 2008 vice presidential nominee, has cut a robocall that’s expected to go out to voters starting Monday. And that evening, former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, who has broken with Trump in the race, will join “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson and Brexit leader Nigel Farage for what is expected to be a raucous pro-Moore rally in Fairhope, Alabama.
Bannon, whose Breitbart website has been aggressively attacking Strange, is slated to appear on Sean Hannity’s Fox News program live from the rally and is also expected to host episodes of Breitbart radio from Alabama.
The ex-White House adviser has spent weeks rallying conservatives to get behind Moore. Bannon has described the race as the first front in a midterm civil war that will pit the establishment and movement wings of the party.
Strange, for his part, has shown little interest in handicapping the race.
After the debate on Thursday, the senator was asked by reporters why he thought Moore was ahead.
“I don’t think he is ahead,” he responded. “I think—“
Before he could complete his answer, an aide had interrupted him.
“Next question,” Strange’s handler said.
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