MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Sen. Luther Strange on Tuesday tried to beat back a challenge from firebrand jurist Roy Moore who was in sight of grabbing the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate despite Strange's backing from President Donald Trump and millions of dollars from allies of Senate Leader Mitch McConnell.
The outcome of the contest for Attorney General Jeff Sessions' former Senate seat will reverberate through the national Republican Party in the latest battle between the party's populist and establishment wings. It has also pitted Trump against his former strategist, Steve Bannon.
Trump, who held a headline-generating rally in Alabama last week, supported Strange with a Tweet sent before voting began Tuesday morning in Alabama: "Luther Strange has been shooting up in the Alabama polls since my endorsement. Finish the job - vote for 'Big Luther.'"
Strange has looked to support from the White House in the heated race with Moore who was twice removed as state chief justice by a judicial ethics panel for stands against gay marriage and for the public display of the Ten Commandments.
On Monday evening, Vice President Mike Pence spoke to several hundred Strange supporters in at airplane hangar in Birmingham, praising Strange's record of helping the Trump administration.
"Luther Strange is a real conservative. He's a leader and a real friend to President Trump. I got to tell you, Big Luther has been making a big difference in Washington," Pence said before exiting the stage to the tune of "Sweet Home Alabama."
Propelled by his support from evangelical voters, Moore led Strange by about 25,000 votes in the crowded August primary and runoff polls have shown him leading or in a dead heat with Strange.
"All of Washington is watching to see what Alabama does," Moore said at a Monday night rally in south Alabama rally attended by Bannon, Brexit leader Nigel Farage, and "Duck Dynasty" star Phil Robertson.
Bannon told the crowd that the race was an opportunity to send a message to the "Washington elites" who "think you're a bunch of morons."
A super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has pumped $9 million into the Alabama race on behalf of Strange. Moore on Monday lashed out at attack ads run against him, at one point pulling a handgun to dispute a National Rifle Association commercial that portrayed him as weak on gun rights.
"I believe in the Second Amendment," Moore said, pulling a handgun from his pocket.
The winner of the runoff will become the favorite in December's election against Democrat Doug Jones, a lawyer and former U.S. attorney during President Bill Clinton's administration. Jones is perhaps best known for prosecuting Ku Klux Klansmen responsible for killing four black girls in the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church.
The victor will serve out the remainder of Sessions' term and will have to run again in 2020.
On the outskirts of Montgomery, 76-year-old Air Force retiree John Lauer said Trump's endorsement swayed him to vote for Strange on Tuesday.
"I voted for Strange. I'm a Trump voter. Either one is going to basically do the Trump agenda, but since Trump came out for Luther, I voted for Luther," said Lauer said.
Poll workers in the heavily Republican Birmingham suburbs of Helena and Pelham said voter turnout was steady, with short lines at two places when doors opened Tuesday.