MONTGOMERY, Ala. — At a rally for Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore in a historic train depot on Thursday evening, several of his prominent supporters took turns explaining why they think President Trump endorsed the Republican establishment's pick for the seat instead of Moore, a former state Supreme Court justice known for his politically incorrect and often Trump-like statements and positions.
Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Republican backed by the Tea Party movement, suggested that the president was misled by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, whom the crowd repeatedly booed. Jan Morgan, a spokeswoman for the Citizens for Trump grass-roots group, said “the president was ill-advised when he made his decision.” And former Alaska governor Sarah Palin accused the swamp — which is what Trump likes to call the Washington establishment — of trying to overpower the president.
“The forgotten man and woman in this country, they stood up, and we beat the swamp. But, alas, 10 months later, guys, the swamp, it's trying to hijack this presidency,” said Palin, who unsuccessfully ran for vice president in 2008 and was one of the leaders of the Tea Party movement that predated the Trump movement. “The swamp is trying to steal the victory that we worked so long and hard for — to steal the victory that a lot of us put our reputations on the line for. We voted to put America first, not the political elite that had ignored us for decades.”
The president endorsed Luther Strange, a former state attorney general who was appointed to fill the seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and he has repeatedly encouraged Alabamians to vote for Strange in the Republican primary runoff election on Tuesday. The winner of that round will then face Democrat Doug Jones on Dec. 12. Alabama is a deep-red state, and Trump won 62 percent of votes in November.
Although Strange has far outspent Moore and secured the endorsements of the president, Vice President Pence and many Republican Party leaders, Moore outperformed Strange in the primary last month and has been leading in the polls. Moore also picked up the endorsements of Trump's former chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka, Fox News personality Sean Hannity, radio show host Laura Ingraham, Palin and the pro-Trump Great America political action committee. A woman sitting in the front row at Moore's rally on Thursday wore a red “Make America Great Again” visor and held a homemade sign that read: “Mr. President and Mr. V.P. I love you, but you are WRONG! America needs Judge Moore.”
The battle between the two Republican candidates illustrates the rift in the party following Trump's unexpected victory, and Tuesday's runoff election is expected to test the president's influence on candidates other than himself and the strength of the political movement he sparked ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. During a debate on Thursday night, Strange said he has developed a “close personal friendship” with the president, and he mentioned Trump's endorsement again and again and again. Trump plans to attend a campaign rally with Strange in Huntsville, Ala., on Friday evening. Meanwhile, Moore cast Strange as one of the swamp-dwellers that the president had promised to flush out of Washington, and he suggested that Trump is “being cut off in his office” and is “being redirected by people like McConnell, who does not support his agenda, who will not support his agenda in the future.”
Strange quickly fired back at Moore and said: “To suggest that the President of the United States, the head of the free world, a man who is changing the free world, is being manipulated by Mitch McConnell is insulting to the president. It’s absolutely insulting to the president.”
At the Moore rally at the train depot — which followed the debate and was repeatedly interrupted by passing freight trains — most of the featured speakers were careful to not harshly criticize the president. Instead, they soothingly reassured the crowd that it's okay to pick a different candidate than their beloved president did, casting the grass-roots Trump movement as something bigger than just Trump. They said that they hope the Alabama special election will set off a nationwide grass-roots effort to replace longtime Republican members of Congress with political outsiders.
Palin described Moore as being “deplorable before deplorable was cool,” borrowing the label that Democrat Hillary Clinton applied to some Trump supporters last year.
“A vote for Judge Moore isn't a vote against the president,” Palin said. “It is a vote for the people's agenda that elected the president. It's for the big, beautiful movement that we're all a part of. The president needs support to keep the promises that elected him. So we're sending Trump someone who has our back, not Mitch McConnell's … Make no mistake, 'Big Luther' is Mitch McConnell's guy.”
Moore was twice elected chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, and he was twice removed from the position — first in 2003 when he refused to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from the court building, and again in 2016 when he ordered the state's probate judges to defy the U.S. Supreme Court's same-sex marriage ruling and continue a ban on such marriages in the state.
The evening contained at least three prayers, including one led by a state Supreme Court associate justice who thanked God for highlighting Moore's “strength of character and principal and dedication” during the debate while exposing his rival as “a man who was trying to grab ahold of the coattails of the president or the U.S. attorney general.”
The final rally speaker was Moore himself, who took the stage as “Sweet Home Alabama” blared. A woman in the crowd yelled: “We love you!”
“I am humbled,” Moore said, as he marveled at Palin and his other endorsers. “I'm not the speaker that they are. I'm not nearly as pretty as she is. But thank y'all for coming.”
Moore told his the crowd that everyone in Washington is watching this election, chided reporters for being “politically stupid” and not knowing that he was citing a popular hymn when he mentioned uniting the “reds and yellows” living in the country, and how it's more important for “the country to be good again” than for it to be great again.
“I know y'all came to see Sarah Palin — that's why I came,” Moore said with a laugh, as the crowd applauded. “But God bless you, and y'all have a good evening.”