Battle for the soul of the Republican party rages on in Alabama race

Controversial Senate primary runoff is the latest proxy battle in the never-ending fight between the party’s establishment and its insurgent grassroots

Luther Strange and Doanld Trump embrace after Trumps’s speech at the Von Braun Centre in Huntsville on Friday. Photograph: Marvin Gentry/Reuters

Donald Trump can’t lose in Alabama. The candidate he has endorsed may win Tuesday’s primary runoff for the US Senate. If he doesn’t, the winner will be a man backed by much of the president’s base.

The race pits Luther Strange, the appointed incumbent of the seat vacated by attorney general Jeff Sessions, against Roy Moore, a controversial social conservative who has twice been removed as chief justice of the state supreme court.

Strange, a former lobbyist, is backed by the Republican establishment. A Super Pac aligned with Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has spent more than $9m on the race; groups like the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Rifle Association have also spent on Strange’s behalf. This is because Strange is seen as a loyal Republican vote. Moore marches to the beat of his own drum, a steady tattoo of controversial and outlandish statements.

The fight has become the latest proxy battle in the seemingly never-ending fight between the Republican establishment and the grassroots of the party. That fight has taken on new contours.

Moore is the first candidate to be backed by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon since Bannon left the White House, and has been heavily touted by Bannon’s pro-Trump website, Breitbart. A victory for Moore, also endorsed by members of the hard-right Freedom Caucus, would embolden hardcore conservatives long disenchanted with GOP congressional leadership.

Establishment Republicans see Moore as a weak candidate who might force them to spend resources to beat a Democrat in deep red Alabama and who would, if elected, undermine McConnell’s slim majority in the Senate.

Such establishment support has made Strange a slightly ill-fitting match for a president who ran for the White House with disdain for politics as usual and a promise to “drain the swamp” of Washington.

Trump appeared with Strange at a rally in Huntsville on Friday. In a circuitous speech focused largely on the NFL and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, the president both offered a wholehearted endorsement and hedged it.

The goal was to ensure votes from people like Deanna Brown of Huntsville, who said she supported Strange because “anybody…

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