That’s what both campaigns will be gauging through the weekend after the president holds a rally Friday night for Sen. Luther Strange, who trails former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore in the first major Republican Party electoral bout of the Trump era.
Advisers to both campaigns tell U.S. News the combatants are separated by 3 to 5 percentage points, with Moore leading but Strange creeping closer by the day, due to an influx of millions of dollars in advertising spent by outside interest groups on the incumbent’s behalf in the final weeks. Strange has benefited from 90 percent of all outside money in the race, totaling close to $11 million.
Strange’s campaign is essentially betting that Trump will prove to be the decider, solidifying lukewarm supporters and prodding undecided voters into Strange’s camp by Tuesday. The campaign also plans on swiftly turning around a final television ad featuring Trump’s rally remarks, with a source saying the spot is set to begin airing Sunday night.
The winner of the GOP primary runoff will face Democratic candidate Doug Jones in a December election for the Senate seat formerly held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Recent polling showed a surprisingly competitive race no matter who emerges as the Republican victor.
Trump already has claimed credit for a Strange comeback, boasting Friday that his candidate has “gained mightily since my endorsement,” but saying the race still “will be very close.”
While there’s no credible research available on how many percentage points a presidential endorsement is worth to a candidate, Strange’s team believes Trump is a unique X-factor unlike any other.
Trump carried the state by 28 points in last fall’s general election and remains highly popular with GOP primary voters. And during the August GOP primary, only about a third of voters realized Trump was backing Strange, according to a Strange adviser. The president’s in-state appearance is expected to change that, providing the man he affectionately calls “Big Luther” with an intense level of attention he’s not seen since having been appointed to the Senate seat in February.
“I have personally been on the receiving side of a President Obama visit in the days preceding an election, and I can tell you that it took the wind out of our sails in that gubernatorial race. It was a big hit to absorb,” recalls Jacob Daniels, a Washington lobbyist and former chief of staff for Trump’s campaign in Michigan. “I think that this particular visit will be even more effective because one, the visit is during a primary, and two, this is a state that the president won by a large margin less than a year ago.”
Even Moore’s campaign has been careful to praise the president and present his decision to endorse Strange, who is backed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., as a result of advice contaminated by conventional Washington forces.
“I’m here because I do care about President Trump. I want to see him have two term[s]. I want to see him make America great. But we need Judge Roy Moore to help get that done,” GOP Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas said at a rally for Moore on Thursday night.
For Moore’s troops, McConnell serves as the the prime villain attempting to hijack a contest by infiltrating the Heart of Dixie with swampy tactics, money and messaging. Trump is just a bystander, whose political novelty provides him with a shield from culpability.
“A vote for Judge Moore isn’t a vote against the president. It is a vote for the people’s agenda that elected the president,” Sarah Palin, the former Republican vice presidential nominee, said at the Moore rally Thursday. “We’re sending Trump someone who has our back, not Mitch McConnell’s.”
The latest public polling, from a Fox10 News/Strategy Research survey, found Moore with an advantage of 8 percentage points – a lead that, if accurate, is likely insurmountable for Strange, even considering Trump’s appearance.
But in venturing to Huntsville, Alabama, himself, Trump has placed his indelible imprint on the race, assuming risk and ownership of the final result.
At this point, a Strange win would be an upset akin to Trump’s own electoral triumph, and the president would revel in all the credit – for the most part deservedly so.
It’d be foolish to think Trump will own responsibility for a loss, though. If Moore holds on, the president will still assert he made it close for Strange in the end.
The real problem for Trump will be if the race doesn’t turn out to be a nail-biter at all, which isn’t out of the question.
As Moore campaign chairman Bill Armistead notes, “Judge Moore has never performed less than the polls have shown. He’s always won by more.”