As U.S. Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama chatted with a farmer after a meeting in her district on agriculture legislation, she was peppered with questions on a range of conservative issues.
She was eager to answer. Border wall? She supports it. Abortion? Against it.
The four-term Republican is underscoring her conservative bona fides as she fights for her political life. She’s facing off against another Republican next week in a runoff race that’s at least partially the result of her past criticism of Donald Trump.
Roby, 41, angered some Republican voters during the 2016 campaign when she said then-candidate Trump’s lewd comments about women — infamously captured on the “Access Hollywood” tape in 2005 — made him “unacceptable” as a candidate for president.
Two years later, some voters weren’t ready to forgive those comments. She captured only 39 percent of the vote in the June GOP primary, forcing her into a July 17 runoff against former Rep. Bobby Bright, who was once a Democrat but is now running as a Republican fully embracing Trump.
The president came to Roby’s aid last month with a tweeted endorsement calling her a “reliable vote for our Make America Great Again Agenda.” That endorsement could prove to be Roby’s saving grace. Trump has endorsed the opponents of other GOP lawmakers who have criticized him, most notably Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who lost his primary race last month.
Trump’s backing of Roby could persuade holdouts to support her. Her message is that her past criticism of Trump doesn’t undermine her conservative voting record in Congress.
“My record is a strong conservative record that I stand by, that I believe does accurately represent the principles and priorities of the people in Alabama’s 2nd District — whether we’re talking about the military or farmers or veterans, fighting for the unborn,” she said after a campaign lunch with peanut farmers in Enterprise.
On a humid Friday night, Bright, 65, met about three dozen people at the wood-paneled Vida Community Center, laying out his own conservative credentials. In answering a question about the 2nd Amendment, he noted he has 11 guns at home.
“I am a Republican. Get that clear and spread the word. I am a Republican and I am proud of it, and I’ve been voting conservatively all my life. My conservative record is stronger than hers,” Bright said.
Bright, the 13th of 14 children born into a sharecropping family in the district’s southern end, spent 10 years as mayor of Montgomery before being elected to Congress as a Democrat in 2008. Bright cast votes against some of his party’s key proposals, including health care reform. Roby unseated him in 2010.
The 2nd District is a conservative swath that begins north of Montgomery and spans through the soybean and peanut fields in the southeastern corner of the state. The district is heavily agrarian. A boll weevil monument in Enterprise pays tribute the agricultural pest that prompted the region’s shift from cotton to peanuts and other crops.
The district’s strong military presence is sometimes visible in the skies as planes from Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery and helicopters from the Army’s aviation program at Fort Rucker buzz overhead.
Steve Tanner, a 60-year-old farmer from Greenville, Alabama, called Roby’s office in 2016 because he was upset about her Trump comments. But he said he plans to vote for her next week.
“I think people need to get behind her and forget about it. She’s trying to work with us,” Tanner said. Tanner said he thinks many people misunderstood her comments, wrongly interpreting them as a backing of Hillary Clinton.
Lynn Popwell of Marbury, Alabama, voted for Trump in 2016. She’s voting for Bright on Tuesday, saying she believes he will “shake things up” like Trump.
“Everybody right now doesn’t want Washington. They want hometown. They want the guy next door who is your neighbor,” Popwell said.
Like Tanner, Popwell said in 2016 she also reached out to Roby because she was angry about her Trump comments.
While Trump loyalty has become something of a litmus test in the GOP ranks, there are some nuances. Soybean prices plummeted as concerns of a U.S-China trade war stoke anxieties among the region’s farmers. Popwell said she doesn’t agree with everything Trump does.
“We live in the South and I’ll tell you my terms. He was the cleanest turd in the pasture,” Popwell said of her 2016 vote for Trump.
Roby has a 5-to-1 fundraising advantage over Bright, who is largely self-funding his campaign. Roby has used the arsenal to hammer at Bright in television ads over his past as a Democrat, particularly his 2009 vote for Nancy Pelosi as speaker.
“Democrat Bobby Bright voted for Nancy Pelosi to be speaker of the House when he was elected in 2008,” Roby said when asked why voters should choose her on Tuesday.
Bright responds that he did not personally support Pelosi, but he said not voting for her would have ostracized him from House leadership and crippled his effectiveness in representing the district.
Bright counters that Roby is the establishment candidate of Washington, out of touch with her district and the people in it.
“It’s not about steak and lobster in D.C., it’s about peanuts and helicopters in Alabama,” Bright said.
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