HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — As thousands of President Trump’s supporters arrived at an evening rally for Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.), they passed a handful of signs promoting Strange’s rival, former state judge Roy Moore.
“Vote for the godly man,” Cal Zastrow, 56, told passersby as he held a Moore campaign sign and often bounced with giddy excitement for Tuesday’s Republican primary runoff election.
“I’m voting for Moore,” one man told him, grabbing some pamphlets to take to church on Sunday.
“We all are,” chimed in a woman walking past.
Over the course of the afternoon, it happened over and over again. Many of those who showed up to the president’s rally in this northern Alabama city — home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center — said they firmly support the president and were excited to see him. But they didn’t plan to follow his recommendation to vote for Strange, who has attracted the heavy financial support of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s political action committee.
“To attend the rally you had to confirm that you were voting for Luther Strange. . . I’m not voting for Luther Strange, I can tell you that right now. I’m voting for Roy Moore,” said Adina Peyton, 55, an enthusiastic supporter of the president who lives in the area and teaches college students. “I like that [Moore] stands on his principle, even though he had to pay the price for it.”
Tuesday’s runoff primary election between Strange and Moore presents an early test of the president and the extent of his influence over the political movement that he sparked. In coming elections, it remains to be seen where Trump takes that movement — or where the movement takes itself. Numerous Trump supporters here said that a Moore win should not be viewed as a Trump loss.
Moore outperformed Strange in the first round of the Republican primary last month and has been leading in several polls ahead of Tuesday’s runoff contest. He is best known for having been twice removed from the Alabama Supreme Court — first in 2003, when he refused to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments from the court building, and again in 2016 when he ordered the state’s probate judges to defy the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage.
Inside the arena here on Friday night, it looked like a Trump rally, not a Strange one. The crowd was dotted with red Trump campaign hats but few, if any, T-shirts, stickers or signs promoting Strange.
For Strange, the runoff is being fought mostly on the airwaves and in mailboxes. For Moore, it’s a grassroots effort that relies on yard signs, rallies and church networks — much like Trump’s campaign for president.
Strange, who earlier this year was appointed to the position vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, addressed the crowd for four minutes and left the stage, leaving the president to speak for nearly 90 minutes — delivering an often confusing message in the process.
Trump repeatedly urged his supporters to vote for Strange, whom he called a “great person” and a “tough, tough cookie.” But he also said that both Republican candidates are “good men” and that if Moore wins, he would campaign “like hell for him” — although he said it would be easier for Strange to win the election against a Democrat in December than for Moore, who has a history packed with controversial comments and stances.
“I might have made a mistake,” Trump said of his decision to support Strange. “I’ll be honest, I might have made a mistake.”
But then he added: “Luther will definitely win.”
Ben Boles, a Huntsville Trump supporter who works in the car sales industry, compared seeing the president to seeing the pope during a recent trip to the Vatican. He plans to vote for Strange.
“I appreciate the fact that he, in a short period of time, has obviously earned the ear of the president,” said Boles, 44, adding that he has read reports about Trump’s lengthy phone calls with Strange. “That resonates with me because for the citizens of Alabama, in order to get what we hope our elected representatives will do, they have to have access. And Strange has proven that he has access.”
The previous night, several hundred Moore supporters gathered at a historic train depot in downtown Montgomery, Ala., to watch a debate between the two candidates and then attend a rally with former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.
Donnie Sue Wise said she was ”very disappointed” by Trump’s endorsement and quickly sent him messages on Twitter and Facebook warning that Strange is part of the so-called Washington swamp.
“I don’t think Strange will be on his side,” said Wise, 68, the wife of a Baptist pastor who lives in Prattville and works in real estate.
Sitting in the front row at Moore’s rally was Chu Green of Mobile, a 71-year-old immigrant from Vietnam who wore a red “Make America Great Again” visor and held a homemade sign that read: “Mr. President and Mr. V.P. I love you, but you are WRONG! America needs Judge Moore.” Off to the side was John Maddalena, a “Bikers for Trump” member who attends most of the president’s rallies in the area but would not go to one supporting Strange.
Palin and other speakers Thursday evening suggested that the president was misled into endorsing Strange, and Palin insisted that “a vote for Judge Moore isn’t a vote against the president.”
At the Huntsville rally on Friday, several hundred protesters gathered in a nearby park with signs that attacked the president’s positions and statements, but made no direct mention of the Senate race. An architect holding a cardboard sign that read “Can it get any stranger?” said that she was referring to the current political climate and not trying to play off Strange’s last name.
Faye Howe, a 71-year-old retired human resources director who immigrated from Scotland, said she used to be a Republican but no longer recognizes the party and voted for Hillary Clinton, although she doesn’t identify as a Democrat.
“This country has done so much for me, and I do not want to see it lost,” she said, tearing up as she spoke.
Inside the rally, the crowd repeatedly applauded Strange — but there was noticeably more excitement for the president. As Strange briefly addressed the audience, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan whispered to a reporter: “I don’t know who this guy is.” A teenager in a Trump t-shirt yelled at Strange: “You suck!”
Romair Anderson, a 43-year-old technical writer and father of two young children, said he still needs to research Strange and Moore to decide who will get his vote on Tuesday. Anderson voted for Trump because the real-estate developer “has a heart for the American people” and isn’t afraid to push people to have uncomfortable conversations. But the president’s endorsement only carries a little weight, he said
“That can help,” Anderson said, “but it doesn’t just put a stamp of approval on it for myself, because unless the president has been great friends with Luther for the past 20, 30 years, has lived at his home and seen everything that he has done, he really doesn’t know him.”