PELHAM, Ala.— One week before the Alabama special election Senate primary, Republican contenders are battling over who is the true conservative and who will be the strongest fighter for President Donald Trump.
That was evident Friday night when eight of the nine candidates showed up at a candidate forum at the civic center here. The Shelby County Republican Party’s event was one of the rare events where the top three contenders — Sen. Luther Strange, former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore and Rep. Mo Brooks — were in the same room.
Onstage, their similar conservative stances were clear. But they will have to set themselves apart ahead of the Aug. 15 primary to fill the seat vacated by former Sen. Jeff Sessions, who is now Trump’s attorney general. (Strange was appointed to the seat in February.)
Recent polls show Strange and Moore leading, with Brooks in third place.
If no candidate garners more than 50 percent of the primary vote, the top two will head to a runoff on Sept. 26, with the general election on Dec. 12. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates this race Solid Republican.
Strange, Moore and Brooks have one week to make their case to voters that they are the most principled, the most conservative, and the most supportive of Trump.
The question facing all three is whom will voters actually believe.
The Trump factor
The Alabama election is the first for a Senate seat since Trump won the White House in November. And support for the president has been a key factor in the campaign.
Brooks has faced the most heat for not backing Trump during last year’s GOP presidential primaries. And he’s been hammered in ads from both Strange’s campaign and a super PAC backing Strange for his previous comments against Trump.
Brooks supported GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas during the primaries. After a leaked video showed Trump making sexually aggressive comments in 2005, the congressman declined to say if he would vote for him.
But now Brooks says he would be Trump’s ally in the Senate. He is spending the final days before the primary on a “Drain the Swamp” bus tour (borrowing from a frequent mantra of Trump’s campaign) in the same bus Trump used during his tour of the Yellowhammer State. Brooks frequently stresses his support for the president and his votes supporting White House priorities at campaign stops.
His supporters reject claims that he does not back Trump.
“BS, BS, BS,” said Randy Mazer, 75, who attended Friday’s GOP forum with his wife. Mazer said he is backing Brooks because of his conservative credentials.
Moore has also tried to channel Trump’s popularity into his campaign.
“Last November, America voted for a change in the election of Donald Trump,” he said Friday. “People signaled that the people of this country, they wanted to go a different direction.”
But it’s not clear when Moore first supported Trump. In an interview after a GOP candidate forum in Valley on Thursday, Moore declined to say whom he supported during last year’s presidential primaries.
“I supported [Trump] when he won the nomination,” Moore said.
Strange made his own case Friday for why he is the most pro-Trump candidate.
“I don’t regret my vote for President Trump,” Strange said in his closing remarks at the forum. He later added, “I don’t regret that. I’m not confused about that issue at all. That’s very clear.”
It’s not a surprise that candidates are tying themselves to Trump. A recent Gallup analysis showed 55 percent of Alabamians approved of the president’s work so far, around 15 points higher than his national approval rating.
Trump also won last year’s GOP primary by 22 points. But he won with a plurality of 43 percent, meaning most of the primary voters chose someone else.
While supporting Trump is important to those voters, some Alabamians said they also are looking for a senator who can buck party leadership to support conservative causes.
“I was a reluctant Trump supporter,” said Eric Evans, 55, of Vestavia, who was sporting a Brooks campaign sticker after the candidate forum. Evans explained he was concerned that Trump was actually a Democrat.
Evans, who works for the federal government, said he was backing Brooks because the congressman “was a conservative when it wasn’t cool to be a conservative.”
“And he’s not going to go with the Republican establishment,” Evans said. “I know that and I trust him on that.”
Taking on Strange
Being independent of party leadership is one area in which Brooks and Moore have tried to distinguish themselves from Strange.
They both have expressed support for eliminating a 60-vote threshold to advance legislation in the Senate. (Strange is opposed.) The wonky Senate procedure dominated some of the discussion at the forum, and has been a key part of Brooks’ argument for why he is the best ally for Trump.
“How can you have the president’s back when you are supporting a 60 percent rule that kills his entire agenda?” Brooks said.
Both Brooks and Moore have faced attacks from the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Their frustration boiled over at the candidate forum Friday night, with both accusing Strange of being beholden to special interests and the party establishment.
“The swamp is fighting back in this election, and you can determine for yourself who the swamp’s candidate is, and who they believe will do the bidding of the special interest groups that have undermined America’s interests,” a fired-up Brooks said from the podium.
Moore, waving a news article about McConnell’s involvement in the race, said the GOP leader is “afraid that he’s going to get somebody in the Senate that he can’t control.”
But the tactic might not work with voters who have already settled on Strange because of his previous record as the state’s attorney general.
“What we used to call experience, they’re now calling establishment,” said Renee Powers, a 64 year-old former kindergarten teacher who is backing Strange. “And since when did that become a naughty word?”
For his part, Strange said he was not afraid to take on fellow Republicans “when they have lost their way.” He pointed to his successful primary campaign against an incumbent GOP attorney general in 2010 and his work to combat corruption in state government.
Both Brooks and Moore’s criticism stem from ads by the Senate Leadership Fund, a group dedicated to protecting incumbents. The fund has spent roughly $4 million on the primary so far, and could spend up to $8 million for the primary runoff.
Most of the group’s five television ads, seven radio ads, and dozens of digital ads have focused on Brooks’ past statements about Trump. But, in gearing up for a potential runoff, the fund recently started blasting Moore for payments he received from a charity.
Moore said he received a salary while working for the charity and called the ads “scurrilous, false and deceiving and misleading.”
Strange said the ads were produced by an outside group that he doesn’t control.
Even so, some voters have linked the ads with Strange’s campaign.
Glenda Mazer, whose husband Randy is supporting Brooks, said she had been leaning toward Strange, but the attack ads turned her off. She’s now undecided.
“Instead of saying what he’s going to do, what he stands for, what he’s done, all he’s done is attack,” Mazer, 68, said after the forum.
Clay Campbell, a 34-year-old farmer who backs Brooks, said Strange is getting too much “Washington money.”
“It makes him look like an insider,” Campbell said.
But Chris Pack, a spokesman for the Senate Leadership Fund, said the group’s ads are resonating.
“I think what you’ve seen from the public polling out there — it’s working,” Pack said. “So it’s hard to argue with a result in the sense that Mo Brooks likely is not going to make the runoff.”
The ethics question
Moore and Brooks have also said they are the most principled candidates, taking not-so-subtle jabs at Strange.
“You shouldn’t be in the race when you just condemn your opponents all the time,” Moore said. “That is unethical.”
Moore was a controversial figure while serving as chief justice on the Alabama Supreme Court justice. He took stands on religious freedom issues that resulted in his removal from office in one instance, and, after he was re-elected, a suspension.
Forming his hand in the shape of a zero, Brooks told the forum, “In my 30-plus years in my time in public service, I have had this many ethics complaints against me.”
The congressman alluded to Strange’s appointment to the Senate seat.
Strange, who was Alabama’s attorney general at the time, reportedly asked a state House committee to halt its probe of the state’s governor, Robert Bentley, while his own office investigated him. Bentley eventually appointed Strange to the vacant seat before resigning for using government and campaign funds to cover up an affair.
Strange has called the suggestions of a quid pro quo agreement “politics at its worst.” He also said at a candidate forum last month that he accepted the appointment because he was confident his team in the state attorney general’s office “would continue to follow the truth to wherever it led.”
But Sandra Lasseter, 72, of Glencoe, said questions about Strange’s appointment influenced her decision to support Brooks.
“It’s problematic,” Lasseter said after a Brooks event in Gadsden. “… I see nothing good about his appointment by Gov. Bentley.”
Other voters said the appointment was not a major factor.
A middle-aged man working in a store in Anniston, where Brooks stopped for lunch on his bus tour last week, laughed at the prospect of Alabama voters rejecting Strange because of the circumstances surrounding his appointment.
“That’s just kind of the way things go in Alabama,” he said.