‘You’ve got to go’: How the GOP persuaded Trump to campaign in Alabama – Washington Post
That prompted GOP establishment forces to wage an intense behind-the-scenes campaign to convince Trump that he could carry Strange across the finish line with an appearance in Alabama.
Private polls were circulated in the West Wing showing a more favorable race for Strange than public surveys — including one the U.S. Chamber of Commerce commissioned from Trump campaign pollster Tony Fabrizio, whose imprimatur Republicans thought could sway the president. A close ally of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) briefed Trump and Vice President Pence on the contest. Jeff Roe, Strange’s top consultant, fed regular updates to Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser.
And Sen. Bob Corker — whose own relationship with Trump was frayed by a summer of curt criticism — paid a visit last Friday to the Oval Office, where he delivered a blunt request at the end of a broader conversation.
“You’ve got to go,” the Tennessee Republican told Trump, according to people briefed on the exchange. “We need you there.”
The last-minute push, detailed by several White House officials and other Republicans, resulted in Trump deciding to stage a rally with Strange on Friday, followed by Pence heading down Monday on the eve of Alabama’s runoff election.
For Trump, the gamble will test whether his voters will heed his call — or instead will back Roy S. Moore, a Bible-quoting former state Supreme Court justice who enjoys the support of former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and other prominent members of the Trump coalition.
Senate Republicans also see the Alabama primary as a political squall that could shape the 2018 midterm elections and test the president’s willingness to bolster endangered GOP incumbents.
“Alabama is sooo lucky to have a candidate like “Big” Luther Strange,” Trump tweeted Wednesday evening. “Smart, tough on crime, borders & trade, loves Vets & Military. Tuesday!”
The winding process of securing Trump’s trip to Huntsville, Ala., reveals the fragility of the bonds between the president and other leaders of his party, who are searching for ways to steer him into becoming their reliable standard-bearer in next year’s elections.
“It’s important to have both [Trump and Pence] send a strong message,” said Sen. Cory Gardner (Colo.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “It’s an environment question. If you’re trying to read the tea leaves going forward, every race adds a leaf.”
White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, who has tried to control what information Trump receives about the Alabama race, was initially wary of the president appearing with a senator who might lose. He preferred Trump spend his time on policy initiatives such as tax reform rather than rousing crowds at political rallies. Likewise, Bill Stepien, the White House political director, urged caution and at first recommended that Trump stay out of the state, administration officials said.
Senate Republicans, however, were unwilling to let the president turn his attention elsewhere. A Strange defeat, they worried, could prompt some GOP senators to retire to avoid facing the wrath of anti-establishment voters and the likes of Bannon’s Breitbart News.
Kelly, who came around to backing the rally, was also told by several senators that Republicans might be hesitant to fully back Trump’s agenda if they were uncertain about his support for them.
As Trump mulled his options last week, McConnell spoke with Trump, and Gardner encouraged his Senate Republican colleagues to tap their own political networks on behalf of Strange, associates said.
“It was a reminder to the conference,” Gardner said of his remarks, which were recounted by several attendees. “The race is a snapshot in time, so you don’t want to put too much weight into it, but it’s important.”
Last Friday, after Corker’s meeting with Trump, strategist Ward Baker briefed Trump and Pence by phone on the Alabama landscape. Baker advises the Senate Leadership Fund, a McConnell-aligned super PAC that has poured more than $8 million into Alabama to support Strange. Kelly, as well as legislative affairs director Marc Short and Pence chief of staff Nick Ayers, also participated, people familiar with the discussion said.
Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, said she impressed upon Trump how much power his visit could have in Alabama and reminded him that all five of the candidates he backed in special elections this year won.
“There’s nothing like the hum of Air Force One touching down so that the president can lend direct and personal support to a candidate he’s endorsed,” Conway said. “We’re already five for five in special elections this year, and those contests were in very disparate geographic and demographic districts where the common denominator ended up being the president and vice president getting involved.”