Politics

Could Trump Shake Up the Alabama Senate Race?

President backs incumbent Luther Strange one week before GOP primary

Alabama Sen. Luther Strange arrives for a candidate forum held by the Shelby County Republican Party in Pelham, Ala., on Aug. 4. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

President Donald Trump threw his political weight behind Republican Sen. Luther Strange just days before Alabama voters head to the polls in the special election for the remaining term of former Sen. Jeff Sessions. How other candidates respond could determine whether that endorsement makes a difference.

Polls show Strange, Rep. Mo Brooks and former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore are the top three contenders in the crowded Republican primary field. Strange was appointed to the seat in February after Sessions resigned to become attorney general.

If none of the candidates garner more than 50 percent of the vote in the Aug. 15 primary, the top two candidates will advance to a Sept. 26 runoff. 

With five days left before the primary, Strange is working to make sure voters remember that he is Trump’s choice. And Brooks and Moore are forging ahead with their campaigns.

Spreading the word 

With Trump’s endorsement (made in a Tuesday tweet) coming one week before the primary, Strange’s team will be spreading the word about the endorsement in a state where Trump is very popular.

“An endorsement even of this magnitude requires six to ten reinforcements with voters for them to even realize that this occurred,” said Brent Buchanan, a GOP strategist based in Montgomery, Alabama. “... The impact of this endorsement is going to hinge on whether the Strange campaigns puts enough paid media behind it.”  

Strange’s campaign launched a radio and a 30-second television ad on Thursday morning touting the endorsement. A campaign spokeswoman said the ad is running statewide, but she could not provide information on the size of the ad buy. 

“President Trump says Luther Strange is the best conservative to pass our agenda,” the ad’s narrator over an image of Trump’s tweet.

What You Need to Know About Next Week's Alabama Senate Special Election

Buchanan said the key for Strange is getting that message to voters in Alabama who strongly support Trump.

“That’s the person that is going to make the decision here,” Buchanan said. “Does that make him turn out to vote when he was previously not going to?”

Election officials are expecting a low turnout next Tuesday. Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill said turnout could be between 20 percent and 25 percent, about 10 points below a typical primary, according to The Associated Press.

Buchanan and Republican strategist David Ferguson said Trump’s endorsement could bring some voters to the polls who otherwise would not have voted or were undecided.

“It really could push people who were on the edge, or didn’t know what to think, or didn’t know what commercials to believe,” Ferguson said. “They’re likely going to side with the president.”

Ferguson said the Trump endorsement could even motivate enough voters to help Strange win a majority of votes Tuesday — and the primary outright. 

But that could be difficult in a primary featuring nine candidates.

Trump’s endorsement came just one week before the primary. Strange learned about the endorsement Tuesday afternoon. He spoke with the president by phone before a press conference at the Alabama GOP headquarters in Hoover, Strange’s campaign confirmed. Trump’s Twitter endorsement came later Tuesday night.

One key question facing the Strange campaign is whether there is enough time to communicate to voters that Trump chose him as his preferred candidate. 

Buchanan said mailers touting the endorsement likely needed to be in the Alabama postal system sorting facilities by Thursday or Friday at the latest — and time was running out.

But Ferguson said he thought the endorsement was well-timed, since undecided voters often settle on who to vote for within seven to 10 days before the election.

Forging ahead

Sources with both Moore and Brooks’ campaigns rejected the notion that there were enough undecided voters who would be swayed by the Trump endorsement to actually make a difference in the race. 

The two campaigns have insisted Trump’s endorsement isn’t going to change their messaging, even though both candidates have been making the argument that each of them would be Trump’s strongest ally in the Senate.

Brooks has made more of an effort to tie himself to Trump than Moore, even though the congressman supported GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas during last year’s Republican presidential primaries.

In an interview on his campaign bus last week, Brooks summed up his message to voters as: “Ethics, proven conservative, and I’m the candidate that supports Donald Trump’s agenda. Luther Strange is undermining it. Killing it is a better word.”

Brooks has touted his support for the president’s agenda on the campaign trail. On Tuesday, before Trump’s endorsement, Brooks released a television ad with an image of Brooks and Trump in the Oval Office. A source with knowledge of the campaign said the ad will remain on the air. 

Trump’s endorsement of Strange does not mean that Brooks is going to significantly change his messaging. Instead, Brooks is ramping up his attacks on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Throughout the primary, Brooks was hit with a deluge of ads from the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with McConnell. The ads often featured past comments Brooks made criticizing Trump.

Following Trump’s endorsement, Brooks has continued with his attacks on McConnell, even accusing the majority leader of misleading Trump into endorsing Strange.   

Trump has recently criticized McConnell for failing to repeal and replace the 2010 health care law, and Brooks used the president’s favored social media tool — Twitter — to agree. He also asked Trump to reconsider his endorsement of Strange.

“I agree completely, Mr. President. McConnell & Strange don’t support your agenda. I do,” Brooks tweeted at the president Wednesday. “Reconsider endorsement @realDonaldTrump? #DitchMitch.”

But the Senate Leadership Fund is signaling that it believes the president’s endorsement sealed Brooks’ fate. The group is now shifting its focus to Moore, preparing for a potential runoff between him and Strange.

The fund had negative ads running throughout the state on the former judge. Before Trump’s endorsement Tuesday, it was dividing its ad time in the Huntsville area, which Brooks represents, between Brooks and Moore. The group shifted to airing entirely anti-Moore ads in the area on Wednesday morning. 

Bill Armistead, Moore’s campaign chairman, said Trump’s endorsement does not affect Moore’s messaging or strategy heading into the final days before the primary. 

Moore often began his remarks at candidate forums by naming Trump, noting that voters showed they wanted a change when they elected him president. And that’s not likely to change, since Moore is still in line with Trump’s agenda, Armistead said. 

“This tweet that President Trump made [Tuesday] night does not change one iota of our plan, and our messaging to the voters of Alabama remains the same,” Armistead said. 

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