ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Extra.
We’re just days away from one of the first critical tests of the Trump era in the ongoing fight between establishment Republican and the populist/nationalist whatever you want to call them. The battle is on between these two groups in the Republican Party in the GOP Senate runoff in Alabama. It’s to fill the seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. What’s different this time is President Trump has lined up on the side of the establishment. He’s campaigning to support incumbent Senator Luther Strange, the favorite candidate of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. On the other side, Roy Moore, the controversial former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. His army of grassroots supporters includes tea party favorite Sarah Palin, the president’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon, and many of the president’s own voters. Will Trump be able to tip the scale here Friday night and in the next few days, Phil? That’s the question. And what a – what a wild race this has been.
PHILIP RUCKER: And this is a real risk for President Trump. He’s putting a lot on the line by flying down to Alabama to campaign with Luther Strange. Look, the polls don’t look good for Strange. For a while now he’s been behind Roy Moore. There was actually the first round of voting a month ago. Roy Moore won; Luther Strange came in second there. And so Trump is trying to prop up Strange, trying to get him over the finish line with this big rally in Alabama tonight. And the question is, is he – is Strange going to emerge a winner? And if he is not, it could potentially be a real anchor on Trump with his base and stick with Trump for a long time.
MR. COSTA: But, Phil, why wouldn’t – President Trump’s a political king in Alabama. Why wouldn’t that be enough to carry Luther Strange over?
MR. RUCKER: You know, Trump is a king in Alabama, but Roy Moore has been running around the state speaking the language to Alabama. He’s talking in a very religious way. He’s talking – he is an Evangelical, and he’s really motivating these voters. They see Strange as an establishment figure, as a puppet for Mitch McConnell. And Moore is promising to go to Washington to shake it up, to do basically what Trump campaigned on doing when he ran for president last year, and there’s a real appeal there for a lot of these Trump voters.
MR. COSTA: A lot of implications, Shawna, for 2018.
SHAWNA THOMAS: There are some implications for 2018. How strong is Donald Trump when it comes to some of these states when all politics is kind of local? Like, what we are seeing here to a certain extent is that, as you said, Roy Moore is a known commodity there. Also, Luther Strange got his job in the Senate under very strange – I just said that – (laughter) – circumstances in –
MR. COSTA: Governor Bentley.
MS. THOMAS: Governor Bentley, who had to – who had to leave office, Luther Strange used to be the attorney general of Alabama. There was some behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing that made a lot of people nervous, and people know about that in Alabama. And so this may be more of a local race than we’re letting on, but D.C. is turning it into something that is much more national, like does McConnell, does Donald Trump, and does a whole lot of money win you a seat? And we don’t seem to know the answer to that, but we will on Tuesday. (Laughter.)
MR. COSTA: Leader McConnell, Julie, has poured a lot of money in there, in Alabama, at least through his aligned super PAC. In part, McConnell allies tell me that he needs to show that Republican incumbents can survive in the Trump era.
JULIE PACE: Because there are other races as we look into 2018 where this similar dynamic could play out. Arizona is really top of the list, where you have Trump on the other side, where he’s promoting primary challengers to Jeff Flake, who’s the incumbent Republican senator there. And this ties into what we’re seeing on the Hill with health care, because while Republicans in the Senate have a majority, it is a very slim majority. And McConnell already has some problem children on his hands there. He’s got Rand Paul. He’s got people like Ted Cruz and Mike Lee on other issues that pop up. Roy Moore is the kind of senator who would get into office and create a whole heck of a lot of problems for McConnell. He would not be a reliable vote when he needed him. And with this narrow margin, as they look at next year’s agenda – as much as there would be one in a midterm year – McConnell knows that he needs a reliable vote in Luther Strange by his side.
MS. THOMAS: And that’s something someone told our correspondent, Alex Jaffe, who’s down in Alabama right now. Louie Gohmert, who is a member of Congress, was down there campaigning for Roy Moore. And he told her that Moore winning gives the GOP on the Hill freedom to buck the establishment, that he sees this as their ability to sort of do whatever they want, depending on what they feel their constituency wants and the kind of Republicanism that they have. And if that plays out, it’s an issue for Senator McConnell.
MR. BAKER: It’s also an issue for President Trump, of course. Now, we know presidents don’t actually always translate their popularity with, you know, other candidates on the ballot. That’s been true for a long time. Certainly Barack Obama saw that in two different midterms, when Democrats lost a lot of seats. But what’s interesting is a test of what do people want out of President Trump? The people who really like him, what do they want him to be?
Because he has shown flexibility, let’s say, at times over certain issues that you would think would alienate or upset the people who voted for him. And yet, they have stuck by him, this – not a majority of the people, but the 35 or 40 percent who really do like him. And it leaves you to see how far he can without, you know, taking a chance with that kind of loyalty. You saw – you saw – you showed not only Steve Bannon. You showed Sebastian Gorka, another former White House aide, standing there next to Roy Moore. It’s a really interesting moment.
MR. COSTA: About that interesting moment, Phil, just to wrap us up here on Alabama, when you think about Bannon and his whole crew – Governor Palin and others – if Roy Moore wins, what does it mean for them?
MR. RUCKER: It’s huge for them. They’ve put a lot on the line. Bannon has done a couple of things. He’s instructed Breitbart to take a very pro-Moore, anti-Strange approach in their news coverage on that website. He’s funded some efforts. There was this rally last night that we were talking about with Palin and Sebastian Gorka. And this is Bannon, who’s no longer in the White House, no longer has to toe the line with Trump, saying I’m going to fight for the Trump voters even when the president’s not with them. And there’s a real break here. And I think if Moore were to win, it would lift up Trump.
But there’s another problem that we should point out with Moore, which is that he makes a lot of statements and espouses a lot of views that people see as sexist, misogynistic, anti-gay, racist, and so forth. And if he were to get elected and come to the Senate, it’s going to be a big distraction for the Republican Party because every time he says something other Republicans are going to get asked do they agree or not agree.
MR. COSTA: That is – you hear that all around Washington. It’s not so much electing Senator Strange again. It’s about keeping Roy Moore out of Washington so he doesn’t become a burden for the Republican Party.
MR. RUCKER: Exactly.
MR. COSTA: That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. While you’re online, check out Washington Week’s News You Need to Know. That’s where you can find the latest reporting from your favorite panelists, including a story on Facebook agreeing to work with congressional investigators probing Russian meddling in the election.
I’m Robert Costa. See you next time.