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President Trump Isn’t Supporting the Trumpier Candidate in This Key Senate Race. Here’s Why

4 minute read

He’s outspoken, with no experience as a lawmaker, a track record of politically incorrect comments that have pundits on the Acela corridor widening their eyes and a deep belief that America needs to be made great again.

Sound familiar? This is Roy Moore, the former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court who was removed from this position not once but twice — first in 2003, for refusing to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments he’d had installed in the state courthouse, and again in 2016, for defying the U.S. Supreme Court over its ruling on gay marriage.

Now he’s running for Senate, but he’ll have to get past another Republican who’s backed by President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

On Tuesday, Alabama Republicans will choose their party’s candidate for the Senate seat that used to belong to Jeff Sessions, who left it in February to become U.S. Attorney General. Moore is up against Sen. Luther Strange, whom controversial former Governor Robert J. Bentley chose to hold Sessions’ seat in the interim. (Bentley resigned two months later following allegations that he used state resources to facilitate an extramarital affair with a staffer.)

Moore, who by some estimates is leading Strange by eight points, is the more Trumpy candidate, at least in style. But it’s Strange who has President Trump’s vocal backing. On Friday, Trump flies to Huntsville, Alabama to stump for Strange at a campaign event — a rare presidential move in a seemingly low-stakes election.

“Alabama is sooo lucky to have a candidate like ‘Big’ Luther Strange. Smart, tough on crime, borders & trade, loves Vets & Military,” Trump tweeted on Sept. 20. (Trump has also noted that Strange has “gained mightily” thanks to his endorsement.)

In a recent debate, both Moore and Strange laid claim to Trump’s mantle, and neither would be far off from the president on the issues. Moore, an evangelical Christian who believes America’s ills result from the country’s alleged godlessness, has the support of former Trump senior advisor Stephen Bannon and former Alaska governor-turned-conservative-gadfly Sarah Palin.

But the Strange endorsement represents a pragmatic decision by Trump, after heavy lobbying from Republican leaders, who view him as less unpredictable and risky than Moore.

John Pudner, an GOP strategist who chairs the Alabama-based right-wing action group Take Back Our Republic, said Strange fits the state’s political tilt.

“His record is conservative,” he tells TIME. “It could just be a matter of getting to 50 votes. It probably feels like Strange is more reliable on things like healthcare that are sensitive right now.”

Moore’s primary appeal to Alabama voters is his religious fervor: the state, where until recently school textbooks described evolution as a “controversial theory,” has one of the “biggest faith-based voting blocs in the country,” Pudner says. “It’s not like, say, Wyoming, where the conservatism is more libertarian.”

Most critically, the election will be a barometer of Trump’s continuing popularity and influence in a state where nearly two-thirds of voters supported him in 2016, one of the highest concentrations of support in the country. Many conservative voters in Alabama are wary of Strange because of the terms of his appointment earlier this year: they speculate that Bentley chose the former Attorney General because it would give Bentley an opportunity to pick a new top prosecutor amidst an investigation into his extramarital affair — a claim that conservative sites like Breitbart, helmed by Stephen Bannon, have embraced.

Alabama politicos say that Strange’s performance next Tuesday will directly reflect how much pull Trump still has among voters there. The vote comes as Trump is working with Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to work out a deal to allow undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to remain in the country.

Conservative pundits and websites such s the Bannon-run Breitbart have blasted Trump for the discussion, dubbing him “Amnesty Don.” But one recent poll showed broad support for another deal Trump recently cut with Democrats to fund the government for 90 days, and it’s not clear yet that the conservative grassroots is upset about the potential for a deal on Dreamers.

“He’s making things happen,” 48-year-old Norman Ross, a Trump supporter from Florida, told TIME at a rally supporting the president in Washington, D.C. last weekend. “How are you ‘losing your base’ when your base is growing?”

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