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Past Trump Criticism Might Not Doom Martha Roby in Alabama

Congresswoman faces ex-Democrat Bobby Bright in GOP primary runoff

Alabama GOP Rep. Martha Roby is facing a primary runoff against her predecessor Bobby Bright next week. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Alabama GOP Rep. Martha Roby is facing a primary runoff against her predecessor Bobby Bright next week. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Eighteen months ago, it might’ve been a good bet that Alabama Rep. Martha Roby would lose her Republican primary. But ahead of next week’s GOP runoff for the 2nd District, she’s now favored to win.  

That’s due in part to an endorsement from President Donald Trump, help from allies, and a primary opponent who used to be a Democrat. 

Roby sparked a backlash in 2016 when she announced she would not vote for candidate Trump after a video surfaced of him bragging about grabbing women by the genitals. 

That past criticism drew a crowded field of challengers in last month’s GOP primary. And by failing to win a majority, Roby was forced into a runoff against the man she unseated in 2010, party-switching former Democratic Rep. Bobby Bright.

But then came Trump’s endorsement on Twitter, a little more than two weeks after the primary.  

“It’s a big deal,” Alabama GOP Rep. Bradley Byrne said of the president’s support. “President Trump is very popular in Alabama in general, but in the southern part of the state that Congresswoman Roby and I represent, he’s even more popular.”

So what changed since her 2016 comments? It was a delicate balance of steering closer to Trump, while trying not to appear disingenuous given her past criticism; and emphasizing her conservative credentials to voters at the same time. 

Roby hasn’t joined the ever-shrinking chorus of Trump critics in Congress. But she hasn’t exactly donned a red “Make America Great Again” hat. 

“Those are sort of the two paths people take after having been critical and she didn’t do either,” said former Roby aide Todd Stacy, who now runs Alabama Daily News. “She just kind of kept going forward, and it was probably risky.”

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Rebuilding after 2016

Roby won her fourth term in 2016 by just 9 points in a district Trump carried by 32 points. (Her margin was held down by a last-minute anti-Roby write-in campaign, which drew 11 percent of the vote.)

She wasn’t the only Alabama Republican who called on Trump to step aside as the nominee that year. Byrne, who represents the neighboring 1st District, said the same, but he ended up voting for the GOP nominee.

After Trump was elected, Roby said she was ready  and willing to work with him.

She made several visits to the White House in the following months, traveling down Pennsylvania Avenue with other members of Congress for bill signings and meetings. She appeared at a press conference alongside the president’s daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump to push for an increase in the child tax credit in the GOP tax overhaul. She also stressed her willingness to work with Trump back home to voters through statements and interviews with local outlets.

“It’s difficult for her to serve her constituents while jousting at windmills about the president’s personality or the president’s character,” said Dana Hall McCain, an columnist who critical of Trump and supporting Roby.

Roby’s powerful allies were also lobbying Trump to endorse her in the primary. Those included Speaker Paul D. Ryan and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Politico first reported. Byrne said last week that the pair had previously approached him about the impact of the president’s endorsement and he told them it would be “a great big deal.”

Trump and Roby spoke by phone after he sent the tweet backing her. They spoke again when House Appropriations members went to the White House in late June, according to a Republican involved in the race.

“The president called Martha, told her to get out there and win, and that’s what we plan to do,” Roby’s consultant Blake Harris said.

Bright acknowledged that Trump’s endorsement could affect the primary runoff, but he said voters in Alabama were independent-minded.

“The people of Alabama are stubborn, they are patriotic,” Bright said in a Monday phone interview. “They don’t want people telling them who to vote for.”

The problem for Bright is that he is facing the same criticism that led to his downfall in 2010: as a member of the House, he voted for California Democrat Nancy Pelosi for speaker. It’s a fact Trump pointed to in his endorsement of Roby.

Bright said he made that “procedural” vote so he would not become an ostracized member of the House Democratic Caucus. But he is facing more attacks on the airwaves in the final days of the runoff linking him to Pelosi, whom Republicans loathe.

Cavalry arrives

National Republicans aren’t worried about Roby.

“We have not seen anything to sound the alarm,” one GOP strategist said.

Roby has had a significant financial advantage, ending the pre-primary reporting period on June 27 with $731,000 in the bank compared to $163,000 for Bright.

And she is still getting some help in the final stretch before the runoff. Ryan was the special guest at a Washington fundraiser on June 26, which raised more than $200,000 for Roby’s campaign.

House Agriculture Chairman K. Michael Conaway was in the district on official committee business over the weekend, but also participated in an unofficial event with Roby, and told local reporters she was needed in Congress. 

Conaway’s visit could be viewed as a counter to Bright’s criticism that Roby left the House Agriculture and Armed Services committees, which are both vital to the 2nd District. Roby has argued that her seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee means she can secure vital funding for the two military bases in district and for farmers. House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry has also endorsed Roby. 

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce once again launched a television ad for Roby this week, as it did ahead of the June 5 primary. (Roby finished ahead of Bright, 39 percent to 28 percent, in a five-candidate GOP field.)

The TV spot, backed by a six-figure investment, hits Bright for voting for Pelosi, as does Roby’s own ad that’s on the airwaves. Bright’s campaign is also airing its TV ad, featuring an image of Pelosi hugging Roby.

Bright acknowledged he’s been outspent in the primary runoff, but he is bullish about his chances of defeating Roby, saying she is tied to the GOP establishment and out of touch with the district. Bright has also highlighted his vote for Trump in campaign videos — thought he did support GOP Sen. Marco Rubio in the presidential primary.

But Roby’s backers are still confident the GOP faithful who turn out in midsummer primary runoffs won’t be voting for the former Democrat.

“Those are the people that eight years ago worked really hard to unseat Bobby Bright,” said Stacy, the former Roby aide. “So I just can’t see how suddenly they’re going to turn around and send him to Congress.”

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