Inside Alabama’s Strange Senate race

Luther Strange’s tenure in the Senate is not even four months old, the Republican having been handed his Alabama seat by a scandal-plagued governor who resigned on the cusp of impeachment by lawmakers in Montgomery. But Republicans in Washington are going all out to rescue Strange in his campaign this year, treating him like a beloved Senate veteran.

The multimillion-dollar push in a state that Democrats have almost no chance of winning is intended to help Strange muscle through a crowded primary field that includes two bomb-throwing conservatives apt to cause Mitch McConnell some major headaches should they defeat the appointed senator.

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The Senate Leadership Fund, the powerful super PAC with close ties to the majority leader, has already reserved $2.65 million in TV airtime and is pledging up to $10 million in the conservative state. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has warned political consultants about working for Strange’s competitors. One of Strange’s challengers is already complaining that McConnell is stifling his fundraising.

And influential GOP senators are sending not-so-subtle signals that they aren’t eager to have anyone but Strange return to the Senate after the Aug. 15 primary and a potential runoff in September.

“I won’t mention any names,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), also a two-time NRSC chairman. “But we do need people who are interested in being constructive, because obviously we have a razor-thin margin of 52 [votes] and we can’t go backwards. We need to go forward.”

The rally behind Strange, a former Tulane University basketball player whose 6-foot-9-inch profile is befitting of his “Big Luther” moniker, is in one respect unsurprising: The GOP Conference has a longstanding policy of defending its incumbents. That standard will play out in other states this cycle where Republicans are facing primary threats, such as Arizona and Mississippi.

“The message needs to be sent that we protect our incumbents,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). “Before there’s ever a discussion about other potential races [where] we may want to pick up a new seat, first and foremost we have to make sure that our colleagues understand that they’re a priority.”

But it’s also true Strange’s two most formidable opponents in the Alabama GOP primary — Rep. Mo Brooks and Roy Moore, a former state Supreme Court chief justice — would inject some uncertainty into an already balky Senate majority by taking hard-line social positions and potentially obstructing their agenda. It doesn’t hurt that Strange is polished, predictable and low-key, in addition to having existing relationships with many Republicans from the South.

Meanwhile, Brooks and Moore are attempting to capitalize on Strange’s establishment backing. In Brooks’ view, the support coalescing behind Strange is merely another example of the Washington “swamp” that Donald Trump pledged to drain on the campaign trail.

“For these Republican swamp critters to spend millions upon millions of dollars protecting an appointed placeholder, appointed by a disgraced governor, I just don’t get it,” Brooks said in a recent interview from the Capitol. (In response, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the third-ranking Senate Republican, noted of the four-term lawmaker: “He’s part of that swamp, though. When did he get elected?”)

Other Strange allies say Brooks is plenty swampish himself, having received donations from the National Republican Congressional Committee, as well as the political action committees of former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his successor, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. He was also a leadership-backed “Young Gun” in 2010.

Moore argued that the influx of cash and resources into the Alabama race will ultimately matter little.

“The people of Alabama don’t buy this sort of political approach,” he said in a phone interview. “To spend up $50 million on a candidate that hasn’t been elected and was appointed by a governor that was impeached? That seems to be strange.”

Moore then corrected himself: “I should say, unusual.”

The conservative jurist is currently leading in the polls, but national Republicans hope to push Strange at least to the primary runoff on Sept. 26 and then win there. Moore has strong name identification from his time on the state Supreme Court, although Strange himself has won two statewide races as attorney general and also ran for lieutenant governor.

Brooks and Moore could siphon support from each other, while Strange backers were relieved when Alabama Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh — who could’ve plucked votes from Strange — said earlier this month that he would not run for the seat.

Establishment Republicans also believe they have a straightforward strategy to taking down Moore and Brooks: hammering them as reluctant Trump supporters in a state where the president is still deeply popular. Brooks, who endorsed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for the GOP presidential nomination, previously called Trump “destructive” and complained of his “gutter-mouth tendencies.” Moore’s wife, Kayla, also backed Cruz in the primary.

“I’ve always been supportive of President Trump and his agenda, and that’s what people in the state that I talk to care about,” Strange said in an interview. “My two opponents, I haven’t looked at their record, but I don’t think they were supportive of President Trump.”

And Strange, who replaced Jeff Sessions when he was confirmed as attorney general, embraces the backing from fellow Republicans in Washington.

“I’m really proud to have the support of my colleagues. They, more than anyone, knew and worked with Jeff Sessions, and for them to find me the worthy successor to Sen. Sessions is very encouraging,” Strange said. “I feel very comfortable being compared to Sen. Sessions.”

The support for Strange is not unanimous. Cruz — whose former presidential campaign manager, Jeff Roe, is now working for Strange — notably declined to endorse Strange when asked by POLITICO, saying he still abides by his practice of staying out of primaries involving incumbent senators.

For his part, Brooks — who has also faced attacks from the Senate Leadership Fund that he’s been an ineffective lawmaker — argues that he was “instrumental in my communications” with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in crafting the House’s bill to repeal Obamacare and ultimately muscling it through the chamber. And Moore also says he’s supportive of Trump’s agenda.

“I agree with him on many things. Not because I know him, but because I know things need to be changed on our health care, education, military, foreign relations,” Moore said. “I support the president’s attempt to change things.”

Moore would certainly be an outlier in the Republican Conference and proudly brags about being “not part of the establishment.” He was removed as the state’s chief justice in 2003 for opposing the removal of a Ten Commandments statue from the state Capitol, but was later elected again, before then being suspended for not enforcing the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage. He maintains that anti-gay marriage position today and says the Supreme Court had “no authority” to legalize it.

Brooks, meanwhile, has argued in the past that Democrats have declared a “war on whites” and has made his mark in the Capitol for his hard-line stances on immigration.

Both Brooks and Moore declined to say whether they would support McConnell as Republican leader.

“I don’t know Sen. McConnell,” Moore fumed. “Obviously he doesn’t support me. He called up consultants and made it very difficult to raise money.”

Strange will have his own questions to answer. The biggest liability is likely the circumstances in which Strange was tapped by former Gov. Robert Bentley, who was embroiled in a lurid sex scandal before he resigned earlier this year. Last November, Strange — then the attorney general — asked a House committee investigating a potential Bentley impeachment to hold off while his office conducted “related work.”

Brooks says he professes “no judgment one way or the other” about Strange’s history with Bentley. And Strange himself has argued that there was no impropriety, saying last month shortly after Bentley’s resignation that “everything I did was working with and on the advice of the best public corruption team in the United States.”

Democrats have no illusion that they can flip the Alabama Senate seat, and they have no plans for now to get behind a candidate in their field. But the chaotic GOP primary has nonetheless prompted them to keep an eye on events down south.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said the campaign arm is “following the developments in Alabama very closely.”

Indeed, the battle in Alabama appears likely to get nasty, expensive and unpredictable.

“I can’t second-guess the primary,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, the state’s senior senator. “I don’t know. It’s Aug. 15, that’s a long time. You kidding me?”

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Trump favors personal connections in his foreign policy

By the time President Trump sat down with the leaders of the world’s other industrialized powers at a former monastery here Friday, he already had met and spent time with each individually. The mood around the circular table was one of a “family dinner,” the White House said, with discussions ranging from terrorism and trade to Russia and climate change.

Trump had staked out many seemingly resolute positions on the issues during the course of his campaign, many of them at odds with those of longtime allies. But as the president has listened to his counterparts, his views were “evolving,” advisers conceded.

“He came here to learn and get smarter,” Gary Cohn, the director of the White House National Economic Council, told reporters Friday, at the end of the first of two days of meetings of the Group of Seven leaders.

Trump’s uniquely personalized style, which seems to value one-on-one relationships over policy or politics, has endured its most extensive test this during his inaugural eight-day international trip, which comes to a close Saturday. Though his first months in office have provided plenty of evidence for the power of personality in the president’s world view, the Trump touch was on full display over the past week from Riyadh to Rome, Brussels and Sicily, flavoring what Trump said to whom.

“The risk for European politicians is the closer they get to the Trump administration, and to the Trump administration’s agenda, the greater the risk of some out-of-left-field shift in U.S. policy, leaving them out on a limb,” said Jeffrey Rathke, deputy director of the Europe program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

And if the Europeans kept a certain distance, Trump returned the favor. While he said in the Middle East that he was not there “to lecture,” lecture he did in Brussels to the U.S. allies who are members of NATO. He demanded they spend more on defense and do more in the fight against the Islamic State and declined to clearly pledge to abide by NATO’s mutual defense tenet.

World leaders quickly are adapting to Trump’s style. Many, through their embassies in Washington or with special envoys, are keen to make contact directly with Trump, or at least those very close to him — like daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner — even when that means sidestepping the usual conduits at the State Department.

Mexico, which Trump routinely maligned during the campaign, feels it got something of a reprieve by staking out a personal relationship, in this case that of Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray with Kushner.

But the trump card is getting close to Trump himself.

The president was on the verge of announcing he would pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement — until he received phone calls from Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. By that day’s end, the White House announced that instead the president would be negotiating with the two nations on a new trade deal.

Memoli reported from Taormina and Wilkinson from Washington.

michael.memoli@latimes.com and tracy.wilkinson@latimes.com

Twitter: @mikememolit, @TracyKWilkinson

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An earlier version of this story referred to the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement. It is the North American Free Trade Agreement.

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Trump brings his solo act to Europe

TAORMINA, Sicily — Days before President Donald Trump embarked on his first foreign trip, national security adviser H.R. McMaster said the administration’s message to allies would be: “America first” does not mean “America alone.”

But over the course of the nine-day trip, which wraps up Saturday with a stop at a U.S. naval base in Italy, Trump has seemed happiest when the focus is on him — like the red carpet rollout for his arrival in Riyadh, followed by a sword-dancing display in his honor.

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In Europe, where he’s attended group meetings with other world leaders — first in Brussels at the European Union and NATO and now at the G-7 summit in Sicily — Trump has appeared less at ease.

While he avoided any major gaffes or serious diplomatic breaches, Trump’s lack of rapport with European leaders raises serious questions about his ability to effectively team up with critical U.S. allies.

“Like when there’s a new strange kid in the class nobody likes,” said a senior EU official who was briefed on the closed NATO meetings in Brussels. “You behave civilly when teachers [media] watch but don’t spend time with him in private because he’s so different.”

Trump’s discomfort has been particularly obvious in comparison to European leaders, who move easily in a pack. At NATO or at the European Council, they routinely attend dinners with 30 leaders around the table. They have posed for countless “family photographs.” Attending joint news conferences and sharing the spotlight are old habits.

By contrast, Trump at one point was caught on camera apparently pushing past the prime minister of Montenegro during the NATO gathering to be at the front for the group photograph.

Trump has been at his best in one-on-one sessions, like his bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G-7 with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who spent a weekend at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida and spoke glowingly in Sicily about his “close partnership and collaboration, and friendship” with the new president.

Another senior EU official said Trump did fine in a smaller meeting with the bloc’s top leaders, Council President Donald Tusk and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. “He was very pleasant, he was very easygoing,” this official said. “He was welcoming everybody, greeting everybody. ‘Thank you all guys, you did a great job.’ Very sort of American.”

Trump’s chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, said Friday that Trump had made a concerted effort to engage with his fellow leaders at the G-7.

“He offered the opportunity to open up the conversation, he yielded to all of the leaders in the room, wanting to hear their opinions on trade,” Cohn told reporters. “He literally let all of the leaders go around the room at least once, some of them spoke multiple times before he talked about his views on trade.”

But even some of the individual meetings had their awkward moments, like when Trump, standing with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, volunteered that he hadn’t specified Israel as the source of secret intelligence he was reported to have shared with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during a recent Oval Office visit.

In his meeting with newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron, Trump effusively praised him for his victory over far-right contender Marine Le Pen. The American president went so far as to say that he’d been rooting for Macron, according to French reports — though Trump said days before the first round of of the French election that he thought Le Pen was the “strongest” candidate on border issues and terrorism.

The Middle East leg of the trip may have been easier for Trump because many of the nuts and bolts were nailed down in advance. Before he stepped off the plane, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, had sealed a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia that was formally announced on the trip.

On the Europe leg, allies wanted answers from Trump on questions like whether the U.S. would stay committed to the Paris accord on climate change. They also were unable to come up with a deliverable, say on increasing NATO’s counterterrorism efforts, that Trump could celebrate as clearly as the Saudi arms deal.

While Trump dodged a commitment on the Paris agreement before the G-7 and complained about Germany’s advantage on trade, he charged into the NATO conference with a clear message: pay up. He accused the Europeans of being “unfair” to U.S. taxpayers, opting to make a pitch to his base in the U.S. over building new friendships with allies.

Efforts by some of the Europeans to smooth over the divide seemed to fall flat, such as when European Council President Tusk, tried to joke that the U.S. was lucky not to have two presidents like the EU.

Instead of laughing, Trump replied: “I know.” On his way out, Tusk, a former prime minister of Poland who is still working to perfect his English, tried some idiomatic English on Trump, saying, “See you on the road in Taormina.” He might just as well have said “Do widzenia.”

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State, local leaders circle wagons to save tax break from Trump

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is pictured.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has called the proposal a “direct attack” by the federal government. | Getty

Wiping out the deduction for state and local taxes could reap more than $1 trillion in the coming decade, but cost some taxpayers thousands of dollars per year.

Elected leaders from both parties are mounting a fight against one likely provision in President Donald Trump’s tax-overhaul plan — the elimination of the 104-year-old deduction for state and local taxes.

Wiping out the prized deduction could reap more than $1 trillion for the federal treasury during the next decade, while furthering Trump’s goal of eliminating “targeted” breaks and simplifying the tax code. But it would burden residents in cities and states that have high property or income tax rates, some of whom could end up paying thousands of extra dollars per year.

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The one-page tax plan that the White House released in April doesn’t explicitly call for eliminating the deduction, but Trump’s top economic advisers say it’s on the chopping block. So local and state officials from California to Maine are girding for battle, along with many of their House members and senators. The backlash transcends party lines, a rare occurrence so far in the national tax reform debate.

“I don’t think that will go anywhere,” Republican House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen said during a telephone town hall in his district in New Jersey, the state with the nation’s highest property taxes. “You’ll find most members of Congress in the Northeast, the high property tax states, will continue to support that deduction.”

But the Trump administration seems determined.

“We don’t think it’s the federal government’s job to be subsidizing states,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said at a recent economic conference. “Some states have zero income taxes, some have high income taxes. … For people like me who live in California, you’re going to be stuck with higher taxes that you can’t deduct.”

Lawmakers who oppose the tax break have tried and failed to abolish it before, notably in 1986 when the effort threatened to upend that year’s entire tax reform initiative, the last major overhaul on the books.

Many Democratic state and local officials believe Trump has painted a bull’s-eye on their backs because of their largely blue locales. Beyond raising their constituents’ tax bills, local officials fear that ending the deduction would put pressure on them to slice taxes or cut services.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has called the proposal a “direct attack” by the federal government that would hit blue states harder than others.

“It is not an economic policy, it is political vindictiveness,” Cuomo wrote in the New York Daily News in March. “States that prioritize spending on societal goods are prominently Democratic and this would directly reduce those states’ ability to compete with other states.”

But many Republicans share Cuomo’s ire, in New York and elsewhere. Just hours after Trump released his one-page tax blueprint in April, Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) publicly condemned the potential elimination of the deduction.

“I hope we can preserve this,” Lance said in an interview. “I want a full analysis of how this would affect residents in New Jersey.”

Some Washington lobbyists who work for state and local officials say they are guarding against double taxation of wage income. They call it disingenuous for Trump to turn a blind eye to that principle while fighting to end double taxes on investment income.

Supporters are mobilizing more than just letter-writing campaigns to defend the deduction.

The National Association of Counties is leading efforts to put together a coalition that includes other government groups like the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National Conference of State Legislatures and some private-sector interests, including the real estate sector. They plan to host an event on Capitol Hill next month to lobby members of Congress and their aides about the deduction, which has existed since the federal income tax was codified in 1913.

Advocates are already pounding on lawmakers’ doors, according to a congressional aide.

“Tax reform is a marathon, not a sprint,” said David Parkhurst, the National Governors Association’s staff director and general counsel. “We’re not late to the party.”

Big money is at stake.

According to IRS data from 2014, New York state residents itemized $20.2 billion of property taxes and $47.3 billion in income taxes. The governor’s budget office estimates that 3.3 million New Yorkers will save $5.2 billion writing off property taxes and $12.1 billion deducting local income taxes this year — meaning their federal income taxes would rise between 20 and 44 percent if the deductions were eliminated.

In New York City, roughly a third of the city’s 4 million taxpayers claim itemized local income tax and property tax deductions on their federal returns, worth a total $32 billion in 2014. Eliminating the deduction could add roughly $8 billion to residents’ federal tax liability each year.

“As a tax principle, we don’t understand it,” said Dean Fuleihan, the head of New York City’s Office of Management and Budget. “We don’t understand the point of taxing the income twice. It doesn’t seem to be consistent with what’s supposed to be the guiding principle of these tax policies.”

Eliminating the deduction could have the biggest impact on those making between $50,000 and $100,000 a year, said George Sweeting of the city’s Independent Budget Office. If tax brackets were to remain as they are now, taxpayers earning between $50,000 and $75,000 a year would probably pay $1,600 more per year in taxes without the deduction, and those earning between $75,000 and $100,000 a year would see a $2,200 increase in their tax bill.

But the Trump administration is also looking to overhaul the current tax brackets, making it difficult to predict the exact impact.

In the neighboring Garden State, eliminating the deduction could be particularly crushing because residents there pay the highest property taxes in the nation. According to the Tax Foundation, four out of 10 residents itemize the state and local tax deduction in New Jersey. Another think tank, the Tax Policy Center, estimated that cutting the provision would increase the average tax bill for a New Jersey resident by more than $3,500 per year.

“Our taxes are already way too high here at the local level and it’s causing us to lose good people,” Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) said in an interview. “We simply can’t afford to eliminate this.”

If a tax change of this magnitude were to go into effect, voters would be likely to press even harder for property tax cuts, said Michael Hayes, assistant professor of public policy at Rutgers University.

“It’s going to put more pressure on state and local governments to try and cut spending and put more limitations on the growth of property taxes,” he said.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a longtime friend and close adviser to Trump, took a more measured stance on the tax proposal than other state officials. The Republican governor said he wants to see Trump’s plan in its entirety and gauge whether this hike could be offset by reductions in the income tax.

“I am not ready to yet declare that the plan is good or bad for New Jersey,” Christie said at a press event. “I’m concerned about it because we are a higher tax state at the local and state level, but we have to see what offsetting cuts in rates the president makes to help higher per-capita-income states like ours.”

California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, a Democrat, said taxpayers could benefit from elements of Trump’s tax proposal, including increasing the standard deduction and eliminating the estate tax. But he added: “Everyone knows President Trump loves double talk, but apparently he likes double taxation too.”

It’s not just populous states that could be hit. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she has concerns about the potential impact in her high-tax state.

“I would want to see data on that, and whether or not the increase in the standard deduction that I gather the president’s going to propose would be sufficient to offset that,” she said in an interview.

More pointed criticism came from a former governor of the state, Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who said Trump’s proposal would amount to a “shift and shaft” for Maine.

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