Attorney General Jeff Sessions of Mobile, Ala., talks to President Donald Trump during the 36th annual National Peace Officers Memorial Service, Monday, May 15, 2017, on Capitol Hill, Monday in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
The first sentence in a ringing endorsement for U.S. Sen. Luther Strange’s candidacy reads: “The best decision of my political life was the day I joined candidate Donald J. Trump in his campaign to Make America Great Again.”
The release was sent out by Perry Hooper, co-chairman of Trump’s campaign in Alabama. And who can blame him for making such a boast? In Alabama, Trump remains popular with the conservative GOP base in a state that has long elected Republicans statewide.
Trump’s name will likely be repeated on the campaign trail as 11 GOP candidates for the U.S. Senate seat jockey for name recognition and votes ahead of the Aug. 15 primary.
And the recent problems facing Trump’s administration in Washington, D.C., are unlikely to be a major nuisance during the Republican contest.
“Donald Trump is insanely popular in Alabama with Republican primary voters,” said Brent Buchanan, a Montgomery-based GOP political strategist. “What’s going on at the White House might have an impact if Alabama was a purple state, but we are about the furthest thing from that possible.”
Said Richard Fording, a political science professor at the University of Alabama: “So far, there is no hint that the Republican candidates will distance themselves from President Trump.”
Trump and Alabama
For Trump, he may not have a bigger support network than among the Alabama GOP loyalists who embraced his fiery campaign rhetoric last year.
Alabama voters rewarded the brash New York developer with the strongest support for a presidential candidate since 1972.
His popularity hasn’t waned. In February, a McLaughlin & Associates poll of 500 likely Alabama Republican primary voters showed that the president enjoys strong favorable: Trump was at 88 percent support among Alabama’s GOP, with 69 percent holding a “very” favorable opinion.
“I certainly have no doubt that if another presidential election were held today Trump would carry the state by about the same margin,” said William Stewart, professor emeritus of political sciences at the University of Alabama, and a longtime observer of state politics.
Trump’s national poll numbers offer a sharp contrast. Gallup places Trump’s approval rating at around 38 percent, while a Politico/Morning Consult poll – conducted after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey last week – had the president’s approval rating at 42 percent.
But while a scandalous week unfolded for the president in Washington, D.C., conservative Senate hopefuls in Alabama rushed to embrace Trump.
Trump spent a better part of the past week defending his administration’s handling of the Comey firing, his disclosure of sensitive intelligence to a Russian foreign minister and his making a plea to Comey to drop a FBI investigation into his former national security adviser.
“I think most Alabama voters don’t really pay much attention to Beltway and international politics,” said Stewart.
The support Trump is getting in a deep red state like Alabama mirrors the support he’s getting from staunch GOP backers nationwide. According to the Politico/Morning Consult poll, 79 percent of GOP voters approve of the job he’s doing, while only 16 percent disapprove.
In Alabama, few of Trump’s problems have resonated in the early days of the Senate race.
“We are basically talking about rumors suggesting the President of the United States gave classified information to the Russians,” said U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Huntsville, while in Mobile announcing his candidacy.
Added businessman and Senate candidate Dom Gentile: “I love what the president stands for. He’s been a hero of mine for a long time.”
Fording, the Alabama professor, said it makes sense for the GOP’s Senate hopefuls to hitch their campaigns to Trump, noting that the president “is still very popular in Alabama.”
He credits much of that popularity to the staunch backing Trump receives from conservative media outlets, many of which are consumed by Alabama’s GOP.
“I suspect some of Trump’s supporters are getting impatient with the fact that the policy agenda is not moving forward, but then again, I think that the news outlets they listen to help displace the blame onto other forces rather than Trump himself,” said Fording.
As noted in a New York Times piece published Thursday, the Republican Party and conservative media are dismissing Trump’s woes as “fake news,” while shifting blame at the Democrats and the media.
“I think that a good 50 percent of Trump’s supporters will never abandon him, even if he is impeached,” said Fording. “They will continue to believe it is a conspiracy of some kind – the ‘deep state’ or the ‘never-Trumpers’ or the ‘destroy Trump media.'”
He added, “A disproportionate number of those voters live in Alabama, so I believe it will be politically fruitful for the candidates to align with Trump for the foreseeable future.”
The candidates are already backing Trump and his policies, whether it’s a hardline stance on immigration reform or repealing Obamacare and replacing it with a new GOP-backed health insurance program.
In the first TV ad of the campaign, Strange immediately ties himself to Trump.
“Working with President Trump to drain the swamp. Cutting spending. Reducing taxes to grow our economy with new jobs. Killing unfair trade deals with Mexico and China. Repeal Obamacare. Slashing funds to sanctuary cities. Using the funds to build a wall at the border,” the narrator says.
Roy Moore’s campaign links the former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice to Trump by sharing one another’s backgrounds as outside politicians combatting Washington “insiders.”
Dean Young, spokesman for Moore’s Senate campaign, said that “it’s the wrong time to get these guys from Washington” to help run a political campaign, which was a dig at Strange and the backing he’s received from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other GOP heavyweights.
“There are a lot of people who are upset and Judge Moore is the candidate who will be going against the establishment candidate,” said Young, noting there is are “a lot of Trump supporters” who don’t like “Washington coming down here to tell them what to do.”
Randy Brinson, president of the Alabama Christian Coalition and a Senate hopeful, is linking his biography to Trump: Brinson says he’s “self-made” like Trump, and is also “not a politician,” just like the unpredictable president.
“I think President Trump is very popular,” said Brinson.
Even those who are not specifically mentioning Trump’s name in the early days of the campaign are linking themselves to his conservative platform.
“I’m going to promote America first,” said Trip Pittman, a coastal Alabama state senator who announced his candidacy on the last day of qualifying.
Others might take a different approach on Trump. Congressman Brooks, for instance, said he’s not getting bogged down in “personalities” during the campaign, but instead plans to focus on fiscal issues such as “the debilitating deficits” and “financial insolvency” the country faces.
Trump could also face some criticism from some of the GOP candidates. Hoover businessman Gentile said he would prefer if the president would “tone down” his Twitter rhetoric.
While the GOP ramps up the pro-Trump sound bites, Democrats are likely to invoke the president’s name but in a more negative tone. Eight Democrats are seeking to run in the Dec. 12 general election.
Nancy Worley, chairwoman of the Alabama Democratic Party, noted that there have already been elections in GOP-dominated states where Democrats have made advances since Trump’s inauguration.
In red state Kansas – where Trump won by 20 percentage points – Republican Ron Estes won by a surprisingly close 7 percentage point margin over his Democratic rival in a special U.S. House election in April.
The district Estes won backed Trump by 30 points.
In Georgia, Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel are facing off in a closely watched June 20 runoff election for a U.S. House seat.
Ossoff, during an open primary held in April, fell just short of the 50 percent required to avoid the runoff. He was, by far, the top vote getter in an 18-candidate field to fill a seat last held by Republican Tom Price, who is now Trump’s health secretary. It’s the same U.S. House seat once held by Newt Gingrich.
“(Ossoff) had a great moral victory there and showed that people next door to us are not happy with the Trump administration because Georgia did vote for Trump,” said Worley.
She said that Alabama Democrats will likely also focus in on Trump, and his alleged ties to Russia.
Attorney General Sessions, of Mobile, is also likely to be part of the anti-Trump fervor.
“Trump said he went to Washington to ‘drain the swamp,’ but it’s almost like he and Sessions and everyone else have jumped into the swamp and have become one of the alligators,” said Worley.
She added, “They are out there pushing the wrong things for the people and I think that if Alabamians open their eyes and see what is happening to them, they might elect a Democrat.”
A Democrat win is a longshot. The party hasn’t had anyone in a statewide office since 2013, when Democrat Lucy Baxley was replaced on the Alabama Public Service Commission by Republican Twinkle Cavanaugh.