While Donald Trump has weighed in (sometimes late, and sometimes only via Twitter or robocalls) on behalf of Republican candidates in this year’s special congressional elections, he has yet to test his strength within the party electoral base in a contested GOP primary. There will certainly be two candidates in next month’s U.S. Senate special primary in Alabama (on August 15, with a runoff on September 26 if no one wins a majority) who hope to draw the president into their campaigns — or at a minimum keep him from endorsing the other.
You have to figure that Mitch McConnell has directly or indirectly asked the president and his political advisers to show favor to appointed incumbent senator Luther Strange, who is the candidate of the GOP Establishment both in Washington and back home. Indeed, it seems McConnell may have had to overcome some initial reluctance from the White House in okaying Republican National Committee backing for Strange. The appointed senator and former Alabama attorney general needs the help, owing to widespread suspicions that he might have cut a deal with embattled Governor Robert Bentley, who put Strange in the Senate shortly before his own resignation after a lengthy and complicated sex scandal.
Behind the scenes, McConnell allies wondered whether the holdup was the result of bureaucratic disorganization — or whether the administration was choosing to stay out of the primary, which would have provided a window into how it planned to handle future GOP skirmishes.
As it happens, a number of national figures (e.g., Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and Mark Levin) considered close to Trump have jumped on the bandwagon of a second candidate, Representative Mo Brooks. That fiery conservative is enjoying a surge in popularity for his presence — and presence of mind — during last month’s shooting in Alexandria. He might be a favorite to be Trump’s favorite if he had not called the mogul a “serial adulterer” with “gutter-mouth tendencies” during an appearance in support of Ted Cruz early in the 2016 primary season.
Ultimately Brooks had to abandon his pledge never to “publicly support, or endorse with my reputation, someone who I know to have such huge character flaws and who is dishonest,” and he is now a big self-proclaimed ally of the president. But Trump famously has a long memory for disrespect. He also has a potentially big stick in the race; he trounced Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio in last year’s 2016 GOP primary, and won 62 percent of the vote in the general election. The contest, moreover, is to supply a replacement for Trump’s first congressional supporter, Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
If Trump is tempted to play in Alabama, there’s a third ring in the political circus of this Senate primary, occupied by Alabama’s twice-suspended Supreme Court chief justice, Roy Moore, perhaps America’s best-known theocrat. Moore became famous for defying a federal court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument in his courtroom, and then renewed his notoriety years later by trying to stop recognition of same-sex marriages in his state after the Supreme Court legalized them. Moore has universal name ID and a hardcore conservative evangelical following. He actually leads the field, according to an internal poll from the Brooks campaign. But while Moore has been repeatedly elected statewide as a judge, his two forays into regular elected office have not gone well: He was dispatched by Governor Bob Riley in a 2006 primary by a two-to-one margin, and finished fourth with 19 percent four years later in the primary that eventually led to Bentley’s election as governor. The judge is not a very robust fundraiser.
The general feeling is that both Strange and Brooks hope to get into a runoff (scheduled for September 26) with Moore, figuring that money and a lingering sense of embarrassment over the judge’s religious-political antics will make him easy pickings. No one in the GOP is worried at this point about the December 12 general election (former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones is the Democratic favorite in this heavily Republican state).
More than likely, Sessions’s replacement in the Senate will be someone the Trump White House can get along with just fine. The question now is whether the president will use this contest to send messages for 2018 to his enemies or his friends.