DECATUR, Ala. — The bitter Republican primary for a U.S. Senate seat here has seen candidates attacked for public corruption, for self-dealing from private charities, for being soft on Islamic terrorism and worse — of voting like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
But in a race that has seen the three leading candidates bicker about who is the strongest supporter of President Trump, there was agreement that the president was being unfairly attacked for his response to the violence in Charlottesville. In interviews over the race’s final hours ahead of Tuesday’s vote, Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.) and Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) said Trump’s controversial Saturday reaction to the white nationalist rally had been sufficient.
“He’s a big boy,” said Brooks, after arriving at one of his final “Drain the Swamp” bus tour stops inside a sporting goods store here. “He had his statement and I had mine.”
On Sunday, as he shook hands at a Birmingham Barons baseball game, Strange suggested that Trump’s first statement — condemning the “many sides” who had brawled in Charlottesville — had been attacked unfairly.
“I strongly condemn the violence there and I’m glad that he did the same thing,” said Strange, who was appointed to the seat earlier this year when Jeff Sessions became Trump’s attorney general. “I think the president is under the crosshairs of the national media. There’s nothing he could say that wouldn’t be criticized.”
There was no evidence that the events out of Charlottesville would affect the primary, with polls showing Strange and Brooks fighting Roy Moore, a former state Supreme Court justice, for two runoff berths. “The violence and hatred behind the events in Charlottesville is unacceptable and must be stopped,” Moore said in a Saturday statement.
Democrats, who have paid little attention to the race so far, sound more ready to talk about racism — and to challenge Republicans for giving the president a pass. In Tuesday’s primary, they expect their voters to support Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted perpetrators of a 1963 bombing of a black church, and who has been endorsed by the full party establishment.
“If that young man was a Muslim, the president — within seconds — would have been tweeting out, ‘This is why we need a travel ban! Radical Islamic terrorist.’ Yet he will not criticize people who support him,” Jones said in an interview at his Birmingham campaign office. “It’s wrong and it’s unconscionable that he won’t. We saw this back in the 1960s, where our elected officials — George Wallace or Bull Connor — used words and gave tacit support to let people do things.”
The depleted state of Alabama’s Democratic Party might complicate Jones’s bid. He jumped into the race in May and has raised less than $200,000. A public poll, which his campaign disputes, found him running behind an African American military veteran who happens to be named Robert F. Kennedy Jr. In recent years, establishment-backed Democrats have been upset in low-turnout primaries, with obscure candidates who happened to be at the top of the ballot seizing the nomination.
But Jones, boosted by recorded phone calls from former vice president Joe Biden and by ads on African American radio stations, was confident that he would win the nomination, setting up an aggressive campaign against either Strange, Brooks or Moore. He was ready, he said, to criticize Sessions’s response to Charlottesville as attorney general and Trump, who remains widely popular here.
“People who supported him need to be saying, Mr. President, that is not who we are,” Jones said. “They are not gun-waving, Confederate flag-waving neo-Nazis.”
In a Monday night speech to gun owners in Birmingham, Moore criticized the protests of Confederate monuments that followed the attack, and asked whether protesters would one day take down statues of George Washington because he owned slaves.
“Monuments don’t create hate — people do,” said Moore. “We’re living in a crazy world.”
In interviews at several low-key Republican events, primary voters said they were horrified by what happened in Charlottesville but differed on what else Trump could have said. At Brooks’s rally, where about 50 voters mingled over free ice cream and under a large “TRUMP/PENCE” sign, they said the president was right to revise his comments Monday when he denounced white supremacists and other “hate groups.”
“I’m glad that he’s denounced white supremacy and hatred,” said Cameron Mixon, a young black Republican who was volunteering for Brooks. “There’s nothing right-wing about those people who held the rally. They’re trying to co-opt conservatism and we can’t let them do it.”
Brooks, a member of the Freedom Caucus who has been battered by attack ads from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s PAC, was more interested in refocusing the race on the “immoral” Strange. In Decatur, he told supporters that his congressional district would turn out strongly and grant him an edge, outraged by the tone of Strange’s campaign.
“They know I’m not an ally of Nancy Pelosi,” Brooks said. “I’m not an ally of the Islamic State. In this neck of the woods, Luther Strange is getting the living daylights stomped out of him.”
He would not worry, he said, about news media or Democratic commentary about the Charlottesville attacks. Asked about remarks he made in January, where he said that a “war on whites” was behind the criticism of Sessions’s nomination to be attorney general, he said that he had accurately described the way that Democrats play the race card.
“They use it in almost every campaign,” said Brooks. “They’ve been doing it for years.”