HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — President Donald Trump tried to convince Alabama conservatives that the establishment choice in a Republican runoff for Senate shares their revulsion of Washington politics, contending that Sen. Luther Strange is a “swamp” fighter without close ties to GOP leaders.
Before thousands of cheering supporters Friday night in Huntsville, Trump acknowledged that he was putting his political neck on the line for Strange, appointed in February to temporarily fill the vacancy created when GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions became Trump’s attorney general.
Trump said he hadn’t wanted to get involved in a primary race, but he praised Strange’s loyalty and said Strange had wrongly been branded an establishment insider.
Trump asserted that Strange, as a Senate newcomer, barely knew Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “Luther is a tough, tough cookie. He doesn’t deal with and kowtow to anybody.”
A political action committee tied to McConnell is heavily supporting Strange in Tuesday’s tight race against former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, known for opposing gay marriage and pushing unsuccessfully for the public display of the Ten Commandments.
The winner will face Democrat Doug Jones in December.
In a freewheeling speech punctuated by chanting from the crowd, Trump said he appreciated Strange’s support during the push to overhaul President Barack Obama’s health care law, and he said Strange would better advance the Trump agenda. The president insisted he was taking a political risk and said that if Strange were to lose, the media are “going to go after me.”
Trump argued that Moore would have a harder time winning the general election against Jones, but Trump also promised to campaign “like hell” for Moore if he were the nominee.
Moore is favored by many Trump’s supporters and allies, including former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who headlined a rally for Moore Thursday night, where she said Moore was best qualified to bring change to Washington.
Moore also appears to have the support of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, though a Carson confidant insisted Carson’s praise wasn’t an endorsement.
In a statement released by Moore’s campaign, Carson called the former judge a “fine man of proven character and integrity” who “reflects the Judeo-Christian values that were so important to the establishment of our country.”
But Carson confidant Armstrong Williams insisted the praise was “not an endorsement” and said Carson was “just showing support for his friend.”
While Trump emphasized his support for Strange, his hour-plus speech also touched on his White House agenda, his recent appearance at the U.N. General Assembly and many campaign themes.
He called North Korean leader Kim Jong Un a “madman.” He criticized Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., for opposing Republican efforts to repeal and replace former President Barack Obama’s health care law. He said NFL owners should fire players who kneel during the national anthem. He discussed his long-promised border wall. He said allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election were a “hoax.” And he highlighted his election victory.
Trump’s visit was intended to reward Strange’s loyalty, but also came at the urging of top Republicans, who worry Moore would be a disruptive figure in the Senate or might even lose to Jones.
Still, those at the rally were united in support of Trump, but divided over who should be the state’s next senator. And for some Alabama Republicans, the support of a president they adore wasn’t enough to dissuade them from supporting Moore.
“Vote for Roy Moore, a man of God,” Cal Zastrow repeated to the supporters filing into the Von Braun Civic Center, often getting a thumbs up or enthusiastic “I am” in reply.
One of those was Laura Skipper. She attended rallies in support of Moore in 2003 when he was removed as Alabama chief justice.
“I am a huge supporter of President Trump. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the president, but I am a Moore supporter. I love what he stands for,” Skipper said.
Associated Press writers Erica Werner and Jill Colvin in Washington contributed to this report.