Republicans Head Into Alabama Senate Race Homestretch

Campaigns zero in on turning out supporters

Alabama Sen. Luther Strange is counting on visits by President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence to carry him to victory on Sept. 26. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Alabama Sen. Luther Strange is counting on visits by President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence to carry him to victory on Sept. 26. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted September 21, 2017 at 5:05am

The biggest names in the Republican Party — from President Donald Trump to former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin —  will be heading south as the GOP primary runoff in the Alabama Senate race enters the homestretch. 

Sen. Luther Strange and former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore have been fighting for the GOP nod to fill the remaining term of former Sen. Jeff Sessions, now Trump’s attorney general. As the top two contenders in the August primary, they advanced to the runoff, which in some ways has turned into a proxy battle within the Republican Party.

Strange, who was appointed to the seat in February, has the backing of party leadership, including the president. But Moore has support from former White House strategist Steve Bannon and pro-Trump groups who view Strange as the establishment favorite.

Though Strange’s allies have outspent Moore in the campaign, hitting him with a barrage of negative ads, Moore has been ahead in public polling. But Strange supporters say they see a close race, and are hopeful that a last-ditch effort by the president will help turn out Strange’s voters for Tuesday’s election.

“They’re bringing in the big guns for Strange, so it will be interesting to see what that does,” said Brent Buchanan, an Alabama GOP strategist. “Thus far, all the attacks on Moore have just reminded voters when the election is.” 

Rallying support

Trump will be in the Yellowhammer State on Friday night to rally support for Strange, whom he endorsed ahead of the August primary. Vice President Mike Pence heads to the state Monday to address Strange’s supporters in Birmingham on the eve of the election. 

“The Trump/Pence visits are going to just turn a spotlight on this race,” one GOP strategist said.

Moore’s supporters will also hold their own events to rally supporters. A pro-Trump outside group, Great America PAC, is hosting a rally Thursday night featuring Palin, Texas GOP Rep. Louie Gohmert and former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka. Moore will also hold an election eve rally Monday with Phil Robertson, the family patriarch from the reality show “Duck Dynasty.” 

Before the Great America rally, the candidates will face off in an unusual debate without a moderator or specific questions. Each candidate will have an allotted time to discuss topics they choose. 

Both campaigns are hoping to energize their voters ahead of the special election runoff, which tends to have low turnout. Only 13 percent of registered voters participated in the August GOP primary. Moore finished first in that contest with 39 percent of the vote, while Strange took 33 percent. 

Moore won 60 of the 67 counties in Alabama, and was especially successful in rural areas. His campaign is focused on activating its campaign network in each of the counties, as well as its network of churches.

Moore, who laces his campaign speeches with religious references, has the backing of many religious conservatives in the state. He was first removed from the state Supreme Court when he refused to remove a Ten Commandments monument from a state judicial building. He was again suspended from the court last year after directing probate judges to not issue same-sex marriage licenses. 

The former judge’s campaign has sought to appeal to religious groups, and he often speaks at churches. 

“We’ve been going from church door to church door,” Moore’s general consultant Brett Doster said. He said Moore’s network of supporters are active in more than 600 churches across the state. 

Strange’s base of support is in Birmingham. His allies are focused more on areas around cities like Huntsville that have some of the most fervent Trump supporters. 

Both campaigns also are making their closing arguments.

Moore’s campaign launched a television ad Thursday reminding people to vote. 

“Of course, I’m frustrated by the false negative ads,” he says in the ad. “What we need to do is get on with the business of this country.”

The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC allied with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has carpeted the airwaves with ads supporting Strange and blasting Moore.

The group launched its final two ads this week. The spot released Thursday is a more positive one highlighting Strange as “pro-life, pro-gun, pro-wall and pro-Trump.” Another ad, released Wednesday, re-upped its criticisms of Moore.

Airwave battles

Strange and his allies have outspent Moore on television by an 8-to-1 margin, according to data obtained by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales

“Make no mistake about it. This is David versus Goliath and it is Luke Skywalker versus the Death Star,” said Doster, Moore’s consultant.

The Senate Leadership Fund will have spent nearly $5 million on the runoff by Election Day. America First Policies and America First Action, two groups aligned with Trump and supportive of Strange, have spent nearly $700,000 on the race. 

Some local Republican strategists question whether the negative attacks against Moore would work since he is well-known in the state. 

“His people are going to be motivated, especially if they see negative ads from a third party,” one Alabama GOP strategist said. “In Alabama, that’s like hitting a beehive with a baseball bat.” 

Moore made headlines recently for certain controversial comments. In one speech, he used racially charged terms that referenced “reds and yellows fighting.”

But the remarks may have come too late to be used in ads. And some operatives suggest they wouldn’t make a difference with his base.

“He’s like Donald Trump,” said Buchanan, the GOP strategist based in Montgomery, Alabama. “He can say whatever he wants and it doesn’t move his supporters.” 

Steven Law, the president of the Senate Leadership Fund, acknowledged that Moore has a core group of supporters who cannot be swayed. But he said the fund has been targeting a larger group of Republican primary voters who don’t have set views on Moore. 

“As much as people do complain about negative ads, they can be persuasive,” Law said. 

Moore and his team have sharply criticized outside spending in the race and have accused “Washington elites” of trying to buy the election. But Law said such criticisms were hypocritical since Moore welcomed help from outside groups such as Great America PAC and the Senate Conservatives Fund. 

Moore also got support from a number of conservative groups and leaders. He traveled to D.C. last month to meet with Bannon and North Carolina GOP Rep. Mark Meadows, chairman of the hard-line conservative House Freedom Caucus. Doster said Moore also met with former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. (He has not endorsed in the race, and is now a senior adviser and spokesman for America First Action, which is backing Strange.) 

Doster said Moore’s campaign was grateful for the help from outside groups, given the lopsided spending in the race. 

One of them, the Great America PAC, expects to spend roughly $500,000 — mainly on get-out-the-vote efforts, said Eric Beach, the group’s chairman.

“We want to make sure that the voters are well aware that a vote for Luther Strange is a vote for the status quo and the establishment,” Beach said. 

Though Moore still leads in most public polls, Strange’s allies see the race tightening.

“We expected the runoff would be a hard slog,” Law said. “We expected that progress would be slow. But our goal was to get this to a dead heat and we do think we’re just about there.”