In the Alabama Republican Senate race, every candidate wants to be just like Donald Trump.
But in Tuesday's primary, the leading candidate sounds and acts more like the president, while it's the incumbent, an appointed senator just fighting to make it into a likely runoff, who has Trump's actual blessing — but also the curse of being Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's favorite candidate.
That's the conundrum of the Republican contest, largely seen as a three-way race among front-runner Roy Moore, a controversial former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice; Sen. Luther Strange, appointed back in February to fill the seat of now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions; and Rep. Mo Brooks, who has seized on an anti-McConnell platform as the president's attacks against the Senate's top Republican have intensified recently.
Moore has consistently polled atop the field and looks likely to claim a spot in a probable September runoff. His ads sound downright Trumpian, promising to "drain the swamp" and taking a swipe at D.C. elites.
Moore is well-known throughout the state — and the country — too. He first gained national notoriety when he refused to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from a state judicial building despite a federal court order; Moore himself was then removed from his position as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court in 2003. He won election to the same post again in 2012 but was suspended after he ordered judges to enforce the state's ban on same-sex marriage despite the Supreme Court's 2015 decision in favor of it nationwide under the federal Constitution. He resigned earlier this year to challenge Strange.
To state observers, it's not surprising that Moore has been able to build a strong following and even expand beyond what might be his typical conservative base in the state.
"Alabama voters supported Trump because he spoke his mind and said all the things they had been thinking about government," said Brent Buchanan, a GOP strategist and pollster in the state. "Out of all the candidates, Roy Moore has some of those similar characteristics. You may not agree with all of his policy or personal preferences, but you know that Roy Moore is going to do what Roy Moore believes."
That's why it was so, well, strange last week when Trump tweeted out his support for Strange, saying the incumbent has his "complete and total endorsement!"
The senator has benefited from millions of dollars in ads from the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund superPAC. The very next day after endorsing Strange, Trump started going on Twitter tirades against the GOP Senate leader for failing to pass a bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
Strange has tried to prove his loyalty to the president ever since he was appointed under less than auspicious circumstances. As Alabama's attorney general, Strange was investigating then-Gov. Robert Bentley for misuse of his office amid a sex scandal when Bentley chose Strange to replace Sessions. Facing impeachment, Bentley eventually resigned, and the new governor, Kay Ivey, moved up the date for the special election to replace Sessions long-term.
Polling done following Trump's surprise endorsement showed that the president's blessing had done little — yet — to move the needle toward Strange. One by cygnal, Buchanan's firm, conducted partly after the endorsement, showed Moore still with a lead and high favorables and Strange remaining static, and it was Brooks who took a hit.
Buchanan said the Trump endorsement could help Strange turn out some who were less likely to vote on Tuesday, which could be key in what's already expected to be a very low turnout affair.
And the pro-Trump America First Action superPAC also announced late Friday it would be spending up to $200,000 on digital ads targeting Trump voters to encourage them to come out for Strange.
However, although he's slipping in polling, Brooks is hoping to turn McConnell's fervent support for Strange into a last-ditch way to get into the likely runoff against Moore. He has hitched a "Ditch Mitch" banner to his campaign bus in the final days, and in his closing ad he echoes Trump's frustration with McConnell's inability to push through an Obamacare repeal.
"McConnell and Strange are weak, but together we can be strong," Brooks says. "Mr. President, isn't it time we tell McConnell and Strange, 'You're fired?' "
Ultimately, the Huntsville-area congressman hasn't had the resources the other two candidates have had, and he hasn't been elected statewide before like Moore and Strange. And, perhaps most damaging, he was certainly no fan of Trump during the GOP presidential primaries last year, during which he supported Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. McConnell's superPAC has pointed that out in ads, saying Brooks sided with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
If Strange does fall short of the runoff, that's a big problem for McConnell, said University of Alabama political science professor emeritus William Stewart, a longtime political observer in the state. And if Strange does make it to the likely September runoff, expect that to be a big point Moore can use against Strange, too.
"The McConnell support for Strange will not be helpful because McConnell, as the president says, hasn't been successful at pushing through the president's agenda," Stewart said. "If Strange doesn't make the runoff, that's a definite blow to McConnell," more so than to Trump.
Polling shows Moore is still the favorite against Strange in a runoff, and that's where the McConnell ties could be the most deadly — and place the president in a more precarious spot given his surprising endorsement. Stewart said it would be interesting to watch how much Trump puts his muscle behind Strange later, and something like traveling to Alabama — one of Trump's best states in 2016 — for a rally on the senator's behalf would certainly give Strange a boost.
No matter who wins the GOP nomination, though, he will be the heavy favorite in the December general election, even if it's the more controversial Moore. Democrats are expected to nominate Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney, though he could face a runoff against Robert Kennedy Jr., a Navy veteran who is not related to the famous Democratic political family.
If Moore is the GOP nominee, it will be interesting to watch whether the Democrats can make it even a mildly competitive contest — something Stewart, the former University of Alabama professor, said is doubtful and is emblematic of the problems the party faces overall in the South.
"Right now the Democratic Party is very impotent here," Stewart said. "I think whomever the Republicans choose as their nominee will be the winner."