In the first and only debate in the GOP primary run-off to fill Attorney General’s Jeff Sessions’s Senate seat, Luther Strange had one main talking point: “The president’s endorsing me.” As his opponent, the right-wing judge Roy Moore, announced his commitment to countering “political correctness and social experimentation,” cutting taxes and regulations, and returning “virtue and morality” to the United States, Strange returned again and again to the fact that Donald Trump was supporting his bid for the Senate.
The debate on Thursday night in Montgomery, Alabama, laid bare the dynamics of what might be the most fascinating race in this off-election year, one that bodes ill for a Republican Party that is presumably looking forward to the day when Trump is no longer president. Strange, who was appointed interim senator by the scandal-ridden former Governor Robert Bentley in February, has been endorsed by Trump at least a dozen times on Twitter. Meanwhile, Moore has tried to portray the former Alabama attorney general as a member of the establishment: a “professional lobbyist” only concerned with “special interests.” Implicit in that critique is the idea that Trump himself has drifted from the populist agenda on which he campaigned—that he has become one of the creatures of the dreaded swamp.
Both Strange and Moore asserted their devoted support of the president’s agenda, particularly on issues of immigration. And Trump, who won Alabama in 2016 by a margin of nearly 28 points, remains popular there, with favorability ratings of 55 percent as of July. But odds are that Republican voters in Alabama will reject Trump’s chosen candidate when they go to the polls on Tuesday, with a recent poll showing Moore a full eight points ahead of Strange. This would signify a simultaneous rejection of Trump the man and an endorsement of Trumpian politics from some of his most hard-core supporters, marking an evolution in the nativist, anti-establishment movement that Trump kicked off two years ago and that now threatens to eclipse him.
Strange, as little as he may want to admit it, does represent the establishment. As Moore likes to point out, he was a lobbyist before running for office, representing Alabamian corporate interests in Washington, D.C. He then served as the attorney general for Alabama from 2011 to 2017. A prominent member of the historic Republican wave that took control of Alabama’s state government in 2010, he led legal efforts to oppose the Obama administration’s agenda on issues like immigration, the environment, health care, and LGBT rights. Bentley appointed him to Sessions’s seat just as Strange was reportedly gearing up to bring criminal charges against Bentley tied to a scandalous extramarital romance. Shortly after Strange’s appointment, Bentley resigned, pleading guilty to two misdemeanors. Both have denied that the appointment was a corrupt arrangement to stave off more serious charges.
Though a former judge, Moore is more of an outsider. Like Trump, he has shown utter contempt for the rule of law. Moore was notoriously removed from his post as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court in 2003 after he refused a federal judge’s order to take down a monument of the Ten Commandments that he had installed in the court. He was reinstated to the bench 10 years later, but left when he was suspended without pay for rejecting the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage; his position was that humans were not “at liberty to redefine reality.” He has called Islam a “false religion,” claimed that there is “no such thing as evolution,” and suggested that the September 11 attacks were God’s punishment for America’s sins.
Moore’s main line of attack at the Thursday debate was to connect Strange to the loathed Washington establishment. “Will an elitist Washington establishment with unlimited millions of dollars … in special money be able to control the people of Alabama?” he asked. “I think not.” But Moore didn’t restrict himself to jabbing Strange, stating that Trump has been “redirected” by Washington insiders like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell from working to fulfill his campaign promises. “President Trump had it right when he ran, he said he was going to get rid of lobbyists,” Moore said. “You don’t get rid of lobbyists in the swamp by sending one to the United States Senate.”
Moore was right in one sense: Trump endorsed Strange under pressure from one of McConnell’s associates, among others. According to The Washington Post, the White House was divided on whether to support Strange, since his loss would put Trump in an embarrassing position. But a series of Republican officials, including Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, convinced him to go to bat for the man known as “Big Luther,” arguing that if Strange didn’t win, it could prompt a wave of retirements by incumbents wary of inciting the wrath of the base.
In a reflection of the GOP’s biggest fears, Sarah Palin and former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka held a rally for Moore the same night as the debate in Montgomery, enthusiastically hailing him as the candidate that would drain the swamp. “Getting the job of the temporary Senate seat, being handed the job by the politician who’s now gone because corruption, whatever,” Palin said, referring to Bentley’s appointment of Strange. “I don’t know what you guys call it, but up in Alaska we call it quid pro quo, which I think is an old Eskimo term for that which fertilizes the swamp.”
She went on to call Strange “Mitch McConnell’s guy,” stressing that it was Moore who was better aligned with Trump’s agenda, including banning transgender individuals from the military and building the wall on the Mexican border. “[Moore] was deplorable before being deplorable was cool,” she said. Gorka said, “Tuesday is November 8 all over again: The voters can choose corruption or choose America.”
But even as she slammed his candidate of choice, Palin was quick to affirm her support for the president: “A vote for Judge Moore isn’t a vote against the president. It is a vote for the people’s agenda that elected the president.”
It is now dawning on Trump that he may have backed the wrong horse. In a rally for Strange on Friday in Huntsville, Alabama, he let slip that he “might have made a mistake” in backing Strange. Over the weekend he also said he would campaign for Moore “like hell” if he won, opening a door for him to claim victory regardless of Tuesday’s result.
The race has put the klieg lights on the division between establishment politicians and anti-establishment voters. On Monday night, Vice President Mike Pence and estranged adviser Steve Bannon held dueling rallies in Alabama. And Trump is now caught in the middle. If Strange wins, Trump exposes himself as a pawn of the establishment. And if Moore wins, Trump exposes himself as a weak president whose personal endorsement means little.
A Moore victory would also be evidence that the movement Trump rode all the way to the White House is prepared to go on without him. Trump’s drift toward the establishment has become something of a pattern. In the past month, he’s faced criticism from his supporters for wavering on his promise to repeal DACA, and for appearing to de-prioritize his promise to build the wall. Trump also shocked his base by twice cutting deals with Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, first to negotiate a deal to temporarily raise the debt ceiling, then to begin the process of creating protections for DACA recipients. Right-wing pundits from Ann Coulter to Sean Hannity panned the president’s decision, charging him with making empty campaign promises. “Put a fork in Trump, he’s dead,” Coulter tweeted after news of his DACA deal.
Trump has since attempted to make good with his base by, among other things, attacking African-American athletes. But the warning signs for the GOP are all there: No one can bottle up the forces that Trump has unleashed, not even Trump himself.