The upcoming Alabama Senate primary has two high-profile political contenders facing off: President Donald Trump against his former White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon.
Trump announced Saturday night that he will head to Alabama next weekend to support Republican Sen. Luther Strange in the primary runoff, which pits the appointed senator against former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore.
“I will be in Huntsville, Alabama, on Saturday night to support Luther Strange for Senate,” Trump tweeted. “‘Big Luther’ is a great guy who gets things done!”
Days after leaving the White House to return to his former job as executive chairman of the conservative news site Breitbart, Bannon urged a group of influential conservatives to back Moore over Strange.
At the meeting of the Conservative Action Project, which does not get involved in races but includes representatives of heavyweight conservative groups that do, Bannon took pains to emphasize that he wasn’t breaking with Trump. Instead, he said, he was aligning with figures such as conservative talk radio host Mark Levin and “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson to strike a blow against the GOP establishment – “and in this case, in a more narrow sense, against Mitch McConnell,” a source familiar with the meeting said.
Two White House staffers take part in the meetings: Trump’s legislative affairs aide, Paul Teller, and Vice President Mike Pence’s public outreach director, Sarah Makin.
At the time, some attendees interpreted the White House’s participation in the meeting as an indication that Trump didn’t plan to get in the middle of the intra-party fight. It came as word was reaching Republicans elsewhere that – while things could change – Trump was likely to dial back his involvement in the runoff after tweeting twice and recording a robo-call on Strange’s behalf in the primary, a Republican familiar with Trump’s plans said.
But Trump’s visit Saturday erases any doubt about whose side he’s taking in the race. The move could give Strange, who is backed by the GOP establishment, a boost in his bid to hold onto his seat just days before the runoff election, which will be held September 26.
Strange, whom then-Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley appointed to fill the seat vacated by Jeff Sessions after he was confirmed as attorney general in February, is the candidate of choice for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to keep the seat, which Sessions had held for two decades.
Strange received 33% of the vote in the initial primary ballot August 15; Moore got 39% and the third leading GOP candidate, Republican Rep. Mo Brooks, took 20%.
In response to Trump’s announcement, Strange said in a statement Saturday: “I am proud to have President Trump’s endorsement in this race and I am looking forward to his trip to Alabama. It is an honor to work hard beside him to deliver upon his promises to the American people, like achieving tax relief for hard working Americans and building the wall on our southern border.”
Trump’s announcement came just hours after Brooks threw his support behind Moore. Brooks is a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, and his endorsement further highlights the rift within the Republican Party between the GOP establishment and the conservative wing Moore is counting on.
Employing rhetoric used by Trump throughout his campaign, Brooks called the race “an epic battle between the people of Alabama who put America first, and the Washington Swamp,” adding that he had already cast an absentee ballot for his chosen candidate.
Brooks declined to endorse either candidate after losing in August. However, in his conciliatory comments, he appeared to speak more highly of Moore than Strange.
“I want to compliment Judge Roy Moore on the high quality race he ran,” Brooks said to supporters at the time. “He ran a very honest campaign – perhaps most importantly, a very honorable campaign.”
In his remarks Saturday, Brooks said, “We must be strong during the 10 days left before the election. The Strange/ McConnell forces care not one twit about truth; they freely use malicious lies in their non-stop, scorched earth, campaign of personal destruction.”
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin also recently endorsed Moore’s candidacy.
CNN’s Devon Sayers and Eric Bradner contributed to this report.