President Donald Trump could largely stay out of Alabama's Republican Senate race, leaving it to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his allies to carry Sen. Luther Strange through a primary runoff.
Days after leaving the White House, Steve Bannon urged a group of influential conservatives to back former Judge Roy Moore over Strange in their late-September runoff. Two White House staffers, Trump legislative affairs aide Paul Teller and Mike Pence public outreach director Sarah Makin, participate in the group's meetings.
At the meeting of the Conservative Action Project, which does not get involved in races but includes representatives of heavyweight conservative groups that do, Bannon took pains to emphasize that he wasn't breaking with Trump. Instead, he said, he was aligning with figures such as conservative talk radio host Mark Levin and "Duck Dynasty" patriarch Phil Robertson to strike a blow against the GOP establishment -- "and in this case, in a more narrow sense, against Mitch McConnell," a source familiar with the meeting said.
Some attendees interpreted the White House's participation in the meeting as an indicator that Trump doesn't plan to get in the middle of the intra-party fight.
It came as word was reaching Republicans elsewhere that -- while things could change -- Trump was likely to dial back his involvement in the runoff after tweeting twice and recording a robo-call on Strange's behalf in the primary, a Republican familiar with Trump's plans said.
Trump called Strange on Friday to reiterate his support for the man appointed to fill the seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, according to a Republican involved in the race.
That person said the Strange camp's sense is that Trump will be at least equally involved in the runoff. And Strange is highlighting Trump's endorsement at every opportunity.
A senior administration official said Trump's involvement in the race is still to be determined. He could tweet or record a robo-call, the official said, while noting that Strange's allies hope Trump will visit Alabama in person for a rally alongside Strange.
But four weeks from the September 26 runoff between Strange and Moore, the President has not publicly weighed in on the race since the morning after the two advanced out of a nine-candidate primary.
Trump's absence from the race further exposes a tactical rift between the White House and the Senate GOP ahead of a crucial month with legislative fights over the debt ceiling and government funding.
The McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund super PAC is set to hit the Alabama airwaves with its first statewide television ad of the runoff on Wednesday.
Trump, though, began considering staying out of the race when a mid-August poll showed Moore well ahead of Strange in their one-on-one runoff, according to the Republican familiar with Trump's plans. Other internal polls since then have shown a much tighter contest, typically within the margin of error, sources involved in the race said.
The White House's thinking, the Republican familiar with Trump's plans said, is that while the President is aware Moore is a controversial and potentially problematic figure, he would also be likely to win the general election and support Trump's agenda.
Aggressively backing Strange over Moore, though, could create the perception that a Moore victory makes Alabama's Senate seat a ripe target for Democrats.
If Trump was heavily involved in the race, then a Moore win could also embarrass the President, despite his overwhelming popularity among Alabama Republicans.
A spokeswoman for the pro-Trump America First Action super PAC said the group is contemplating its next move -- and if it will be involved at all -- in Alabama.
Bannon's attendance at the Conservative Action Project meeting was first reported by Politico. His involvement in the effort to push Moore past the incumbent Strange could bring major conservative dollars into a race where pro-Strange forces have dominated the airwaves.
Robert Mercer, the hedge fund billionaire who has backed Bannon, already donated $300,000 to a super PAC backing Kelli Ward, the conservative challenger to Sen. Jeff Flake in Arizona -- an indication he is willing to spend against incumbent Republicans.
Bannon's Breitbart has also promoted Moore, publishing an interview with the former state supreme court chief justice who lost his job twice -- first for refusing to remove the Ten Commandments from a state courthouse despite a federal order to do so in 2003 and again for refusing to enforce the US Supreme Court's decision legalizing same-sex marriage in 2016.