Donald Trump is getting bad advice. He’s being misled. The D.C. “swamp” is threatening his agenda.
A sampling of the president’s most ardent supporters gathered Thursday in a sweltering train shed to puzzle—and vent—over Trump’s decision to back Sen. Luther Strange in the Republican Senate runoff here in Alabama, a race that has become the biggest disagreement to date between Trump and the most committed elements of his base.
As the nasty, expensive Republican runoff between Strange and former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore hurtles to a close on Tuesday, the race is scrambling alliances and fault lines that have until now defined Trump’s presidency, and it is testing Trump’s ability to persuade his base during a rare moment of discord.
“I don’t know why he endorsed Strange when he wants to drain the swamp,” said Stan Stinson, 55, a longtime Trump supporter who drove several hours to attend a rally for Moore and says Trump’s endorsement of Strange is his most significant difference with Trump thus far. “It seems he’s adding another member to the swamp with that endorsement.”
Added Jan Morgan, a spokeswoman for Citizens for Trump, as she warmed up the rally: “The president was ill-advised when he made his decision to endorse Luther Strange.”
Thursday night’s rally, sponsored in part by the pro-Trump Great America Alliance, served as the starting gun for a final sprint that will see Trump and Vice President Mike Pence hit the trail to boost Strange, while prominent hard-right figures who generally back Trump push for Moore. Significantly, Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist who now leads the outlet Breitbart, is seen as a major advocate of Moore’s, and has close ties to Great America Alliance.
But during a debate ahead of the rally, Strange constantly invoked the president’s endorsement, and operatives closely watching the race say that Trump’s backing, in one of the most pro-Trump states in the country, is helping to keep Strange competitive. It’s an uncomfortable situation for some of the president’s most committed supporters here in this strongly pro-Trump state, who remain strongly supportive of the administration but have sharp disagreements over the Senate race.
Meanwhile, Trump’s decision to more aggressively engage on Strange’s behalf has muddled conservative efforts to paint the race as a clear referendum on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose allies have spent millions in an effort to boost Strange and are now aligned with Trump on this race.
But at the Moore rally Thursday, the speakers, including former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, tried to keep the focus on Congress anyway.
“Think about who you have on the other side,” said former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka as he campaigned for Moore. “A man endorsed by Mitch McConnell.”
He cast Tuesday’s election as another version of Trump’s—a choice between “corruption” or “America,” he said, glossing over Trump’s endorsement.
Some attendees disapprovingly noted that some pro-Strange ads are paid for by the pro-McConnell Senate Leadership Fund, a group whose name conjures images of the GOP leader.
“It’s just a political move, Trump probably feels he has to do a deal with the Senate,” said Ken Brittin, 73, a Moore supporter from Montgomery. “All the ads for Strange are done by Senate leadership. These people blocked Obamacare repeal, these are the same people who don’t want a wall or tax reform.”
(McConnell, in fact, did push for Obamacare repeal, which was derailed by a handful of other Republican senators, and he has made clear other Trump priorities, like tax reform, are also his priorities.)
In half-a-dozen interviews with attendees crammed into rows of folding chairs, voters repeatedly said that they wanted to elect a senator who would go to Washington to support the president. But they weren’t swayed by Trump’s endorsement, these Moore-leaning attendees said, because his supporters think his record and views are aligned with Trump, even if the president himself doesn’t think so.
“I believe in his ideals, his Christian beliefs, his past service to the nation and Alabama,” said Betty Kiser, 75. As for Trump? “I approve of him also. He has his choice. So do I.”
Indeed, strategists on both sides of this primary divide caution that the Alabama Senate race is an imperfect measure of the state of the conservative grassroots, because there are so many complicating factors. Moore is already well known, if highly polarizing, because of his hardline conservative positions—he has twice been removed from the bench for refusing to abide by judicial rulings on social issues. And Strange, a former state attorney general, has struggled because of his ties to ex-Gov. Robert Bentley, who left office amid an affair-related scandal. Voters’ views are often baked in, they say.
But Washington is watching Tuesday’s race closely. Many senators and political operatives expect that Moore would upend McConnell’s agenda as a member of his caucus, and a Moore victory could inspire other hardliners to jump into primary races around the country, especially if they have reason to hope that Bannon-aligned forces would back them too.
Trump and McConnell have clashed several times since the president took office, and Trump’s decision to align with the GOP leader on this race—or to endorse at all--has frustrated some activists.
“I’m very disappointed he has put himself into a primary race,” said Jodi McDade, 65. “In the Republican Party, if you’re a county chair, you’re not supposed to endorse during a primary. You endorse during a general.”
At the Strange-Moore debate, one attendee brandished a sign with a pointed message to the administration.
“Mr. President and Mr. V.P., I love you,” the sign read. “But you are WRONG.”