President Trump may be the focus of Tuesday’s Senate GOP primary runoff in Alabama, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also has a lot on the line in the race.
Mr. McConnell, who has struggled to get his troops in line on Capitol Hill this year, has put all his electoral muscle behind Sen. Luther Strange, and a loss for Mr. Strange would be the latest dent to the GOP leadership.
Indeed, polls show Roy Moore, the state’s former chief justice who gained a national profile by defending the public display of the Ten Commandments, leading the runoff.
“Moore is way more of a wild card for McConnell and the administration,” said Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist.
That’s one reason why Mr. Trump has endorsed Mr. Strange, campaigning with the incumbent on Friday and deploying Vice President Mike Pence to Alabama on Monday.
But they’re going up against a long list of Trump supporters — including former top White House strategist Steve Bannon — who are backing Mr. Moore.
Cygnal, an Alabama-based communications firm unaffiliated with either candidate, released a poll Monday that found Mr. Moore, a darling of evangelical Christians and social conservatives, holds an 11 percentage point lead over Mr. Strange — making it a “near certainty Moore wins tomorrow,” according to their analysis.
The victor will face Democrat Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney, in a Dec. 12 special election. Democrats hope that if Mr. Moore emerges from the runoff, it will be a more viable target for them.
As for Republican voters, they’ve been pummeled with ads from both candidates who are promising to back Mr. Trump.
But it’s Mr. McConnell who’s been the dividing line.
The McConnell-backed Senate Leadership Fund has spent $733,000 in support of Mr. Strange and funneled more than $4 million into running attack ads against Mr. Moore, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Mr. Moore has sought to turn the attacks into an advantage, saying Mr. Strange was handpicked for the seat by Mr. McConnell, and urging voters to send Washington a message.
“The problem is that President Trump is being cut off in his office. He is being redirected by people like McConnell, who do not support his agenda, who will not support his agenda in the future,” Mr. Moore recently said.
For his part, Mr. Strange has downplayed the McConnell support and played up Mr. Trump’s backing.
“Are we going to protect and preserve and make this country ‘great again’?” Mr. Strange said last week. “Are we going to support our president or not? I believe we will. I believe we will support our president by voting for me.”
“Mitch McConnell’s involvement in backing Luther Strange has undoubtedly resulted in some degree of backlash due to the fact that he is tied to the Washington ‘swamp,’” said Richard Fording, a political science professor at the University of Alabama.
“However, the backlash is at least partially canceled out, I think, by Trump’s endorsement of Strange,” Mr. Fording said. “This has no doubt left some voters confused as to whether Strange is truly a member of the establishment.”
In addition to weakening Mr. McConnell’s grip on his caucus, analysts say a Strange loss also could embolden anti-establishment forces on the right who might challenge sitting Republican senators in Arizona, Mississippi, Nevada and elsewhere in the 2018 midterm elections.
“I think the concern for McConnell and the White House is: What does this mean for other incumbents?” Mr. O’Connell said.