Trump takes on Bannon in Alabama Senate showdown

 politico.com  9/17/2017 1:44:41 AM   Michael Kruse
WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 26: Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL) departs the U.S. Capitol for a briefing on North Korea at the White House April 26, 2017 in Washington, DC. Members of U.S. President Donald Trump's national security team held a briefing on North Korea at the White House for the entire U.S. Senate. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump’s decision Saturday to intervene in the Alabama special election followed weeks of pleas from senior Republicans who fear that a loss will invite a wave of primary challenges against GOP incumbents and damage the party in the 2018 midterms.

The national party had mounted a full-court press ahead of the Sept. 26 election to persuade the president to make a late visit to the state, where controversial former judge Roy Moore has opened a significant lead over incumbent Sen. Luther Strange. Trump remains popular in Alabama even as his support has diminished elsewhere.

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Trump endorsed Strange before the first round of voting on Aug. 15. But with polls showing the race slipping away, the president for weeks refused to commit to holding a campaign-style rally for Strange. On Saturday, though, Trump announced on Twitter that he would travel to the state just days before voters cast their ballots.

“I will be in Huntsville, Alabama on Saturday night to support Luther Strange for Senate. ‘Big Luther’ is a great guy who gets things done!” Trump wrote.

Trump’s unexpected move sets the stage for a showdown between the president and his recently departed chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who is all-in for Moore. Bannon has cast the Alabama race as an-important clash between grass-roots conservatives and the Washington establishment — and a test for whether other incumbent senators can be successfully challenged by insurgents in 2018.

In response, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other incumbent senators — including Strange himself — have leaned on the president for more help.

Strange spoke several times with Trump by phone last week and asked him to visit before the election. In one of the calls, Strange told the president that he wanted him to come to Alabama but understood that Trump was focused on a pair of devastating hurricanes, according to three people briefed on the discussion. During the 30-minute conversation, Trump told Strange he supported him but was unsure what he could do.

Strange also pitched Vice President Mike Pence. During a recent conversation, the senator gave Pence an update on how the race was going and contended public polling numbers showing him behind shouldn’t be taken seriously, according to two people familiar with the discussion. Strange said he’d be appreciative of anything the White House could do. But there was still no commitment.

“The president is extremely popular here. His approval numbers are in the mid-80s among Republicans,” said Blake Harris, a Republican strategist in the state. “Even more, he's got a record of drawing huge crowds in this state — so a visit could definitely make a difference in what is predicted to be a pretty low turnout election.”

Strange’s Senate colleagues got in on the push, too. Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, who is up for reelection in 2018 and faces the prospect of a primary challenge, urged the White House to get involved, according to two people familiar with the discussion. And this week, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) told White House Chief of Staff John Kelly in a phone call that he’d love to see the president head to Alabama for Strange, said two people briefed on the discussion. Kelly told Inhofe that no decision had been made.

Trump’s refusal until Saturday to commit to a pre-runoff rally fueled fears at the highest levels of the party that the unpredictable president would switch his endorsement to Moore. During a private meeting with Trump this month, McConnell, who views the race a top political priority, made a forceful case why Strange was the right candidate. The president told the leader he had no intention of withdrawing his support for the senator, according to three people familiar with the conversation.

The sense of urgency only grew over the weekend. In a blow to Strange, GOP Rep. Mo Brooks, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, endorsed Moore on Saturday. Brooks finished third in the initial round of voting in August, with just under 20 percent of the vote.

The save-Strange campaign comes at a time of growing concern in the GOP that lawmakers up for reelection in 2018 will face treacherous primary fights that divert party resources from unseating Democrats. Bannon has described the Alabama race as the initial front in a midterm war aimed at undermining McConnell.

A Moore win, Bannon has argued, could open the floodgates for conservative insurgents in states like Arizona, Nevada, and Tennessee. The addition of truculent conservatives backed by Bannon to the Senate could also make it more difficult for McConnell to corral his conference.

Bannon is working overtime on Moore’s behalf. The Breitbart chief held a private meeting with the former judge on Capitol Hill last week and is encouraging conservative power brokers to get behind Moore. An outside group that Bannon is aligned with, Great America Alliance, has begun advertising on Moore’s behalf. The group is also expected to host a pro-Moore rally headlined by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

“The establishment should be worried,” said Andrew Surabian, who worked for Bannon in the White House and is a senior adviser to Great America Alliance. “Republican voters rejected all of their preferred candidates in the 2016 presidential primary, they’re in the midst of rejecting their golden boy in Alabama and I’m confident they will reject their never-Trump stalking horses running in 2018.”

McConnell has expressed concern privately that a post-Alabama avalanche of primary challengers could badly undermine the party’s midterm election prospects. Hoping to stem the tide, the McConnell-controlled National Republican Senatorial Committee has deployed staffers to the state, and a pro-McConnell super PAC has aired around $7 million worth of commercials, with roughly $1 million more set for the final week.

It's a remarkably large investment for a seat in a conservative state that is almost certain to remain in the party’s hands. Jeff Sessions had held the seat for two decades before becoming attorney general. Strange was appointed temporarily to fill the seat until a special election was held.

Trump shares little of McConnell’s interest in stopping Republican primaries — in some instances, he has relished stoking them. Last month Trump flew to Arizona, where he attacked GOP Sen. Jeff Flake at a campaign-style rally and met with several potential challengers to the incumbent. McConnell has repeatedly pleaded with the White House to recognize the threat primaries pose to his conference, though he’s expressed uncertainty the president fully understands the problem.

Within the White House, there was widespread uncertainty about whether Trump would visit Alabama before the runoff. With polls showing Strange behind, aides were concerned about the president expending political capital in a southern state that helped to catapult his 2016 campaign. Trump’s team had considered several other, more limited options, such as cutting a robocall for Strange or tweeting in his favor.

Yet Strange’s campaign remained optimistic. Behind the scenes, the president has expressed a fondness for the senator. During the push to repeal Obamacare this year, Trump has remarked, the senator gave his support without asking for any favors in return. At a time when some Senate Republicans were uneasy about getting behind the bill, the president was impressed.

On Thursday, the White House contacted Strange’s campaign to inquire about where its polling currently stood — an indication of Trump’s interest in the contest.

Regardless of what transpires in Alabama, some GOP officials are bracing for a brutal primary season pitting longtime lawmakers against flame-throwing challengers.

Particularly concerning, they say, has been McConnell's declining popularity in the wake of the failed health care repeal. In the weeks since, Moore has aggressively tied Strange to the Senate Republican leader, making McConnell a centerpiece in his TV ads. If Moore wins, his approach could serve as a template for other insurgent candidates.

The assault from pro-McConnell forces has allowed Moore to portray himself as the underdog. During a recent appearance before the Weyrich Lunch, a closed-door gathering of conservative leaders in Washington, Moore said the Washington establishment wants nothing more than to bring him down.

“This is a fight,” said Moore adviser Brett Doster, “between Luke Skywalker and the Death Star.”

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