By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
Following a heated debate with Sen. Luther Strange Thursday night, Senate candidate and former Chief Justice Roy Moore let loose a series of anti-establishment conservative leaders at an outdoor rally in Montgomery. But earlier in the night, Strange touted support from the leader of the anti-establishment movement himself, President Donald Trump.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a former vice presidential candidate, and Sebastian Gorka, a former adviser to Trump, took to the stage and heralded Moore as the potential undoing of establishment Republican politics.
“I just got a call from Washington,” said Gorka, who advised the president on national security issues and is known for his fringe views on Islam. “They watched the debate like you watched the debate, and they’re worried. And they should be worried.”
Gorka equated Moore’s election in Alabama to Trump’s election in November, saying “Tuesday isn’t just some election” and Moore could be a thorn in the side of establishment Republicans like Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, whom Gorka said was blocking Trump’s agenda.
“The political establishment on the left and the right have betrayed us for too long,” Gorka said. “We need to send a message, loud and clear, that you are not going to pick somebody who is a lobbyist who was appointed by a corrupt governor.”
Earlier in the night at Moore and Strange’s first and only debate before the special primary election scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 26, Moore and Strange battled over who would be more conservative and who would be more effective in furthering Trump’s agenda — an agenda dominated largely by the president’s promise to “drain the swamp.”
“The president supports me,” Strange said during his opening statement. “We developed a close personal friendship. We both come from the same background, from the same mission, the same motivation, to make this country great again.”
Moore and U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, who was eliminated in the special primary in August, have said that Trump was misled or misdireected by McConnell and other establishment Republicans who wanted a senator who would stay in line. Palin echoed that refrain Thursday night at the rally.
“Ten months later, guys, the swamp, it’s trying to hijack this presidency,” Palin said. “The swamp is trying to steal the victory that we worked so long and hard for, to steal the victory that a lot of us put our reputations on the line for.”
At the same rally, Jan Morgan, a spokeswoman for the grassroots organization Citizens for Trump, announced the group would be endorsing Moore, going against their namesake president. Morgan said Trump had been “ill-advised” when he chose Strange as the recipient of his endorsement last month before the primary.
Since then, Trump has repeatedly and enthusiastically tweeted in support of Strange.
“Alabama is sooo lucky to have a candidate like ‘Big’ Luther Strange. Smart, tough on crime, borders & trade, loves Vets & Military. Tuesday!” Trump tweeted Wednesday.
Moore, albeit similar to Trump in bellicose tone and over-the-top rhetoric, is starkly more conservative than the president, who was the first Republican nominee to openly endorse LGBT rights. Moore, a longtime opponent of same-sex marriage who has said being gay should be illegal, is also more conservative than the president on policy issues like health care.
Moore has said he would have voted against most of the Republican proposals to repeal the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s 2010 health care law. In that decision, Moore would have joined more conservative senators like Kentucky’s Rand Paul and Utah’s Mike Lee who also opposed some of the proposals because they didn’t do enough to repeal the ACA.
Despite not receiving Trump’s endorsement in the primary, Moore still finished several percentage points ahead of Strange in the first primary election. Moore, just on the heels of being removed from the state Supreme Court a second time for defying the federal court system, has never shied away from diverging from the mainstream.
“I’m sorry I don’t know the president personally,” Moore said. “I’m sorry I don’t know what he’s thinking. I haven’t been to Washington.”
The battle for who will get the Republican nomination on Tuesday has been heated as Strange and Moore have battled through attack ads, negative stories sent to the press and, now, direct confrontation at the debate.
Moore went on the offensive Tuesday, questioning Strange about his decision to accept an appointment from former Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, whom Strange’s office was thought to be investigating in late 2016 and early 2017 when the former attorney general was sent to D.C. as Alabama’s temporary senator.
Moore said the situation sheds doubt that Strange could actually “drain the swamp.”
“Character is an issue in every case,” Moore said. “We both know it’s highly improper to accept gifts or favors from someone you’re investigating. If you’re charging someone with murder, you don’t go out to dinner with the defendant.”
Palin took issue with it, too, at the rally after the debate.
“Being handed the job by the politician he was to be investigating, I don’t know, I don’t know what you guys call it, but up in Alaska, we call it quid pro quo,” Palin said.
Both during the debate and after, Strange avoided questions about the circumstances surrounding the Bentley appointment.
“I’ve already answered that question a million times,” Strange said before being interrupted by State Auditor Jim Zeigler, who began shouting at Strange to answer the question.
The press gaggle quickly ended right after and Strange was escorted out of the room by staffers.
“You’ve dodged it a million times, now answer it,” Zeigler shouted at Strange before he was hurried out.
The image of being appointed by Bentley — who pleaded guilty to two campaign finance violations after being investigate for political corruption by Attorney General’s Office — has shadowed Strange since he took the post in February. With both candidates being ideologically similar, the non-policy questions, like who’s a better Trump supporter, have dominated this election.
In a special election that should have been easy, even for just a 7-month incumbent like Strange, polls show the race tight with Moore maintaining a slight lead, according to a WSFA independent poll released Wednesday.
Strange repeatedly touted Trump’s endorsement as proof that he is able to disrupt the establishment. But the senator has benefited from millions in ads paid for by the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund. The ads, for the most part, have gone negative against Moore.
Despite the ads, Strange said he has stood up to McConnell several times and would vote against his party if he had to in order to stand up for his principles. He said he has sided with Trump 100 percent of the time since getting to Washington.
“If you want to get something done, it’s good to have a close, personal relationship with the president,” Strange said. “These special elections are entirely about momentum and the momentum is entirely with us now. The president is so excited about coming down here.”