Washington (AFP) – Alabama state Republicans were voting Tuesday in a US Senate primary that will test the extent of Donald Trump’s influence on his most passionate supporters, who will choose between the president’s pick and a populist local judge.
Trump is backing Luther Strange, who was appointed to fill the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions early this year when the president nominated him to be the US attorney general.
“Finish the job – vote today for ‘Big Luther,’” Trump tweeted early Tuesday as polls opened in Alabama. “He has proven to me that he will never let you down!”
But by all accounts Strange is the underdog. In all major recent polls he trails rival Roy Moore, a former state chief justice and Bible-quoting conservative who, in what may have been one of the more brazen campaign moments of 2017, waved a gun before a cheering crowd Monday night.
Alabama, in the heart of the Deep South, has become the latest political battleground over the direction that the Republican leadership is taking the party in Washington.
While Moore leads Strange by some 11 points according to a RealClearPolitics average of polls, Trump remains popular in the state. He won Alabama by 28 points last year.
His national approval rating percentage has dwelled in the thirties since mid-May, but there are large pockets of Republicans still deeply loyal to him.
In a political twist, the race is the stage for a proxy war of sorts between Trump and his recently ousted White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who is backing Moore.
– ‘The nation is watching’ –
Conservative darling and former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin has also stumped for Moore, while current Vice President Mike Pence has campaigned with Strange. The race has attracted millions of dollars in outside campaign funds.
Trump is hoping to win a loyalist in Strange, 64, who has openly backed Trump’s agenda.
Fealty is no motivator for Moore, who has threatened to upend the Republican Party should he win the race and has branded his opponent an “establishment lackey” to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
He is a fierce enemy of McConnell, accusing him of rejecting conservative efforts to pull the agenda further to the right.
Moore is the more Trump-like of the candidates: opinionated, unconcerned about whom he may offend, and desperate to upend the elite system that rules the US capital.
“For whatever reason, God has put me in this election at this time, and all the nation is watching” the Alabama race, Moore said Monday night in his final campaign rally before the primary election.
Bannon, who campaigned with Moore Monday, joined in the Washington bashing, saying party elites think Alabama voters are nothing but “a pack of morons” who will follow the herd.
“You’re going to get an opportunity to tell them what you think of the elites who run this country,” Bannon said.
Alabama has not elected a Democrat to the Senate in a quarter century, so whoever prevails in Tuesday’s Republican run-off — which was necessary because neither candidate won an outright majority in the initial primary in August — will likely win the December 12 general election and head to Washington.
Moore, reveling in his populist appeal, rode his horse Sassy to the Gallant Fire Hall to cast his vote early Tuesday.
The 70-year-old was twice suspended from the Alabama Supreme Court, for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and fighting against orders to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the court house.
His defiance made him a local hero to many, and that anti-establishment streak was on display Monday, when Moore, wearing a cowboy hat and vest, pulled a small pistol from his pocket and showed it briefly to the crowd.
“I believe in the Second Amendment” that protects Americans’ gun rights, he boomed, to loud applause and cheers.
But it is rival Strange who has secured the cherished endorsement of the National Rifle Association, the leading pro-gun lobbying group which has reportedly dropped about $1 million in ads attacking Moore.