President Trump had formally given Sen. Luther Strange his “complete and total endorsement.” But as recently as last week, his advisers were deeply divided on whether the president should risk jetting to Alabama to prop up the Republican, who was trailing in his primary race behind a challenger who had become a darling to Trump’s base.
That prompted GOP establishment forces to wage an intense behind-the-scenes campaign to convince Trump that he could carry Strange across the finish line with an appearance in Alabama.
Private polls were circulated in the West Wing showing a more favorable race for Strange than public surveys — including one the U.S. Chamber of Commerce commissioned from Trump campaign pollster Tony Fabrizio, whose imprimatur Republicans thought could sway the president. A close ally of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) briefed Trump and Vice President Pence on the contest. Jeff Roe, Strange’s top consultant, fed regular updates to Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser.
And Sen. Bob Corker — whose own relationship with Trump was frayed by a summer of curt criticism — paid a visit last Friday to the Oval Office, where he delivered a blunt request at the end of a broader conversation.
“You’ve got to go,” the Tennessee Republican told Trump, according to people briefed on the exchange. “We need you there.”
The last-minute push, detailed by several White House officials and other Republicans, resulted in Trump deciding to stage a rally with Strange on Friday, followed by Pence heading down Monday on the eve of Alabama’s runoff election.
For Trump, the gamble will test whether his voters will heed his call — or instead will back Roy S. Moore, a Bible-quoting former state Supreme Court justice who enjoys the support of former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and other prominent members of the Trump coalition.
Senate Republicans also see the Alabama primary as a political squall that could shape the 2018 midterm elections and test the president’s willingness to bolster endangered GOP incumbents.
“Alabama is sooo lucky to have a candidate like “Big” Luther Strange,” Trump tweeted Wednesday evening. “Smart, tough on crime, borders & trade, loves Vets & Military. Tuesday!”
The winding process of securing Trump’s trip to Huntsville, Ala., reveals the fragility of the bonds between the president and other leaders of his party, who are searching for ways to steer him into becoming their reliable standard-bearer in next year’s elections.
“It’s important to have both [Trump and Pence] send a strong message,” said Sen. Cory Gardner (Colo.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “It’s an environment question. If you’re trying to read the tea leaves going forward, every race adds a leaf.”
White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, who has tried to control what information Trump receives about the Alabama race, was initially wary of the president appearing with a senator who might lose. He preferred Trump spend his time on policy initiatives such as tax reform rather than rousing crowds at political rallies. Likewise, Bill Stepien, the White House political director, urged caution and at first recommended that Trump stay out of the state, administration officials said.
Senate Republicans, however, were unwilling to let the president turn his attention elsewhere. A Strange defeat, they worried, could prompt some GOP senators to retire to avoid facing the wrath of anti-establishment voters and the likes of Bannon’s Breitbart News.
Kelly, who came around to backing the rally, was also told by several senators that Republicans might be hesitant to fully back Trump’s agenda if they were uncertain about his support for them.
As Trump mulled his options last week, McConnell spoke with Trump, and Gardner encouraged his Senate Republican colleagues to tap their own political networks on behalf of Strange, associates said.
“It was a reminder to the conference,” Gardner said of his remarks, which were recounted by several attendees. “The race is a snapshot in time, so you don’t want to put too much weight into it, but it’s important.”
Last Friday, after Corker’s meeting with Trump, strategist Ward Baker briefed Trump and Pence by phone on the Alabama landscape. Baker advises the Senate Leadership Fund, a McConnell-aligned super PAC that has poured more than $8 million into Alabama to support Strange. Kelly, as well as legislative affairs director Marc Short and Pence chief of staff Nick Ayers, also participated, people familiar with the discussion said.
Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, said she impressed upon Trump how much power his visit could have in Alabama and reminded him that all five of the candidates he backed in special elections this year won.
“There’s nothing like the hum of Air Force One touching down so that the president can lend direct and personal support to a candidate he’s endorsed,” Conway said. “We’re already five for five in special elections this year, and those contests were in very disparate geographic and demographic districts where the common denominator ended up being the president and vice president getting involved.”
The sales job began early in the summer. On a Monday night in July at the White House, GOP senators pressed Trump and Pence on Alabama while they gathered over dinner of lemon agnolotti and grilled rib-eye.
Following downbeat talk about the prospect of the party’s health-care legislation and hearing colorful stories from Trump about his time in Paris, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) implored Trump to make Strange’s victory a priority.
“I told him, ‘Luther has voted with you on a lot of things, and that matters if you’re president — and I’ve seen quite a few presidents,’ ” Shelby recalled. “We got into that and how the primary was important — very, very important.”
Strange, a former corporate lobbyist and state attorney general, was appointed to the Senate in February by then-Gov. Robert Bentley (R), taking the seat held for two decades by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had been a firebrand on Capitol Hill.
Strange has been dogged by his link to Bentley, who resigned in April amid a sprawling ethics and sex scandal that ended with him pleading guilty to two misdemeanor charges related to covering up an alleged affair with his former aide.
Experts on Alabama politics in Trump’s administration were mostly sidelined in the president’s discussions about how to handle the primary campaign there. Sessions, who as attorney general is not supposed to engage in political talks, was not consulted. Deputy White House Chief of Staff Rick Dearborn, who previously served as Sessions’ chief of staff in the Senate, supported Strange but was not central to Trump’s decision-making, according to Republicans involved in the talks.
For Trump, the decision to back Strange last month and to head there this week was as much about personal motivations as party pressure. He has a romantic view of Alabama — where he drew some of his biggest and most enthusiastic crowds of the campaign — and a rapport with Strange has been a constant since the two men began talking months ago.
Trump, who sometimes talks about staffing the government like running a television show, sees the hulking, 6-foot-9 senator as out of central casting. The president likes that Strange “can fill a room, literally and figuratively,” one White House official said, and admiringly calls him “Big Luther.” Their phone calls sometimes stretch for more than an hour.
More significantly, Trump sees Strange as one of his most dependable votes on Capitol Hill. Strange has told the president that “the Trump agenda is Alabama’s agenda” and has pledged his unconditional support, White House officials said. During this summer’s health-care debate, for instance, Strange was one of the few Republican senators to vow to back the GOP bill without seeking anything in exchange.
“We have laughed about it,” Strange said. “He has told me, ‘You’re one of the few guys I’m dealing with here who hasn’t asked me for something, and I appreciate that.’ I don’t want tickets to the Easter Egg Roll.”
Trump considered his endorsement largely as a binary choice between Strange and Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), whose past comments criticizing Trump drew the president’s ire. It was unclear whether Trump fully grasped the potential of Moore as a third option, according to people familiar with the president’s discussions. It was Moore who went on to win the first round of voting last month.
Moore claimed in a recent interview that Trump has been manipulated about the dynamics in the race by McConnell and other establishment Republicans.
“Trump is being misled,” Moore said.
Regardless, Trump has had a comfort with Strange that persists. In early August, ahead of the primary, Strange said that the president told him: “Look, you and I have something in common. We’re both new to Washington. You have a background of getting things done, so I’m going to support you.”
Strange said he replied, “A tweet would be a good start.”
Trump did just that hours later, tweeting the night of Aug. 8.
It was an endorsement that caught McConnell and other senior Republicans unaware and, momentarily, left them satisfied.
Michael Scherer contributed to this report.