Trump Not Present, Still Center Stage at Alabama Senate Race

Strange and Moore showcase their closing arguments to voters

Judge Roy Moore has been leading in public polling. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Judge Roy Moore has been leading in public polling. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted September 22, 2017 at 5:03am

The two GOP candidates in the Alabama Senate race came face-to-face Thursday night in an unusual debate, but President Donald Trump and his agenda took center stage.

The debate highlighted a central struggle in the race between Sen. Luther Strange, the candidate Trump has endorsed, and Judge Roy Moore, who has the backing of some of Trump’s allies and supporters who decry the D.C. establishment.

With no moderator, each candidate took turns speaking for five minutes about any topic they wanted. Strange highlighted his experience and tied himself to Trump, using every opportunity to highlight Trump’s endorsement. Moore railed against the political establishment and accused his opponent of lacking character.

The race, Strange said, was about “who’s most qualified to ensure the president’s agenda is accomplished in Washington, D.C.”

Strange said he was that person, especially since Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have endorsed him and will be traveling to the Yellowhammer State in the final days before the Tuesday runoff election.

Moore countered that he was running against Strange, not Trump and Pence. 

“I know you may get tired of hearing this and I know you may resent the fact that the president is my friend is supporting me in this race,” Strange said. “But I think it’s a good thing the president has a personal relationship with the junior senator from Alabama.”

Trump remains extremely popular in the solidly Republican state. He will be traveling to Alabama for a rally on Friday with Strange, and Pence will be in the state on Monday.

But Moore is also well known and has a passionate base of supporters, thanks to his high-profile clashes when he served as the chief justice of the state Supreme Court. Moore was twice removed from the bench, once for refusing to remove a statue of the Ten Commandments from the courthouse, and recently for ordering judges not to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling allowing same-sex marriage.

On the debate stage Moore highlighted his grim view of the country, which he attributed to losing sight of God.

“Crime, corruption, immorality, abortion, sodomy, sexual perversion sweep our land,” Moore said in his opening remarks. 

Moore also took his own shots at Strange, and noted that allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have been backing Strange in the race. Moore highlighted Strange’s time as a lobbyist, and drew on the “drain the swamp” mantra Trump used in his presidential campaign. 

“You don’t get rid of lobbyists in the swamp by sending them to the United States Senate,” Moore said. “This is pure hypocrisy in this race.”

He also raised questions about Strange’s Senate appointment.

Gov. Robert Bentley appointed Strange to the seat after Sen. Jeff Sessions became Trump’s attorney general. But it is not clear whether Strange, who was the state’s attorney general at the time, was investigating Bentley at the same time he sought the Senate appointment. Strange has dismissed suggestions of impropriety, but Moore accused Strange of corruption.

“He’ll do anything to get his job,” Moore said. “And that’s called lack of character.”

Strange brushed off Moore’s attacks and used his time to focus on specific issues.

“For someone who has been complaining about personal attacks you seem to be prepared to deliver a bunch of them tonight,” Strange said at one point. “I’m going to stick with the jobs and the economy now.”

Strange also focused on immigration, national security, and protecting religious freedom. He highlighted his work as attorney general battling President Barack Obama’s administration in the courts.

And, though McConnell’s allies are supporting Strange, Strange put some distance between himself and GOP leadership. He criticized the dysfunction in Washington and the inability of a Republican-controlled Congress to fulfill promises like repealing the Affordable Care Act.

“There’s a lot of anger in the country and we share it, the president and I do,” Strange said. “He’s angry and I’m angry with the lack of progress in Washington.”

After the debate the pro-Trump group Great America Alliance held a rally for Moore and his supporters, who accused Strange of being part of the D.C. “swamp.”

“A vote for Judge Moore isn’t a vote against the president,” said former Alaska Gov. and vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin. “It is a vote for the people’s agenda that elected the president.”