The special Senate election in Alabama is a crucial test of President Trump’s influence with Republican primary voters but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has the most to lose there on Tuesday.
Trump endorsed appointed Sen. Luther Strange in what is essentially a three-man contest, urging Republicans in Alabama via Twitter and pre-recorded, telephone “robo” calls to support him as Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ permanent successor.
But it’s McConnell’s credibility on the line after his affiliated super PAC and associated nonprofit organization invested millions of dollars to boost Strange over Rep. Mo Brooks and Roy Moore, the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.
Surveys project that Strange and Moore will advance to in a late September runoff. But an upset could undercut McConnell politically heading into 2018 with his plans to protect incumbent Republicans and influence GOP primaries in red states where vulnerable Democrats are running for re-election.
“There’s a universal desire to avoid the mistakes of the past when Republicans nominated candidates like Todd Akin, Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell, who all lost, and we don’t want to do that again,” a Republican insider said.
This Republican operative was referring to three nominees who blew winnable general elections — Akin in Missouri in 2012, Angle in Nevada and O’Donnell in Delaware in 2010. After those experiences, McConnell dropped his hands-off approach to GOP Senate primaries.
In 2014, McConnell, at that time through the NRSC, the Senate campaign arm, began intervening in primaries on behalf of incumbents and against flawed candidates who had the support of the grassroots but might put a seat in jeopardy in the general election.
McConnell and his allies see Moore, who focuses on wedge social issues and was removed from the Alabama Supreme Court for refusing a federal court order, as another such problematic party standard bearer. Brooks, a member of the Freedom Caucus in the House, is viewed with similar suspicions.
A loss in Alabama could diminish McConnell’s clout in primaries next year, in Arizona and Nevada, where Sens. Jeff Flake and Dean Heller, respectively, have to fend off intraparty competition, and in a series of states with Democratic incumbents that Trump won in 2016.
“I think it comes down to everyone understanding what’s at stake. If we have serious divisions in the party with respect to the 2018 midterms, that will complicate our ability to grow the Senate majority, complicate our ability to hold the House majority,” Steven Law, a McConnell confidant who runs his super PAC, Senate Leadership Fund, said on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers.”
Moore led the field with 32 percent in the latest RealClearPolitics average of recent public opinion polls, followed by Strange at 28 percent and Brooks at 17 percent.
Spending in the race has been dominated by forces aligned with Strange: Senate Leadership Fund and its affiliated nonprofit, One Nation, with an investment of approximately $4 million on television and radio — mostly for spots attacking Brooks and Moore.
The National Rifle Association also has been active for Strange, running radio ads, phone-banking and dropping direct mail pieces. Trump’s designated outside group, America First Policies, joined the fray for the appointed senator over the weekend, launching a digital ad campaign.
Brooks has suffered the most, watching his favorable ratings good from net-positive to net-negative since Strange’s allies began knocking him earlier this year. Trump’s endorsement of Strange, coveted by the senator, could be too much for the conservative congressman to overcome.
The president’s allies certainly think so. Perry O. Hooper Jr., who ran Trump’s presidential campaign in Alabama, said it “will have a huge impact on the election.”
“It’s a big-time game changer,” he said.
Brooks and Moore, not wanting to poke Trump, who is very popular in Alabama, have couched their campaigns as proxies against McConnell and the Republican establishment in Washington.
Brooks has been a vocal opponent of the Kentucky Republican and promised not to support him as majority leader after legislation to partially repeal Obamacare failed in the Senate. His campaign bus has even sported a “Ditch Mitch!” banner.
A day before the primary, Brooks said that a runoff between him and Moore would send “chills down the spine” of the Senate majority leader.
“McConnell and Strange are weak, but together we can be strong,” Brooks said in a recent television ad. “Mr. President, isn’t it time we tell McConnell and Strange, ‘You’re fired?'”
The McConnell bashing has also been coming from Moore, the state’s two-time chief justice, who has run on a Trump-like message and has vowed to be a thorn in the side of Washington if he fills the remaining three years of Sessions’ term.
“I resent people from Washington, raising money in Washington, and sending negative ads to Alabama and trying to control the vote of the people,” Moore told Politico in an interview. “If the Washington crowd wants somebody, the people of Alabama generally don’t.”
A longtime spark-plug for attention in the state, this will be Moore’s third statewide campaign for a political post. He lost GOP primary bids for the Alabama governorship in 2006 and 2010.
The Brooks and Moore campaigns did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.
This post originally appeared on Washington Examiner