TROY, Ala. — Two years after withdrawing election support for Donald Trump because of his comments about women, U.S. Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama has been forced into a runoff with a former congressman that will gauge what is the bigger political sin for a Republican in a Deep South district: Criticizing President Trump or being a former Democrat.
Roby will face former congressman Bobby Bright in a July 17 runoff. Bright, who represented the district for two years as a Democrat before being defeated by Roby in 2010, is running this year as a Republican and is embracing Trump.
The race will test if a Republican can survive after criticizing Trump. Roby, a four-term incumbent, captured just 39 percent of the vote in the primary field of five candidates Tuesday, while Bright got 28 percent.
Roby in 2016 said that Trump's 2005 lewd comments about women— captured on an Access Hollywood microphone— made him "unacceptable as a candidate for president" and suggested he step aside to let another Republican lead the presidential ticket.
"Trump is just a bright line litmus test for so many Republicans now," said GOP strategist Chip Lake, who's worked on congressional campaigns across the South.
The Roby-Bright matchup sets up as a microcosm of Trump's hold on the core of the Republican Party. It's what made Roby vulnerable to a runoff in the first place, but it also could end up being her saving grace, as conservatives in southeast Alabama will have to choose between a GOP lawmaker who said she would not vote for Trump and a recent-party switcher who once backed California Democrat Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House.
Roby brought up her opponents past as a Democrat as she heads to a rematch with Bright.
"I'm running on my record. I'm a proven conservative Republican in this race," Roby told reporters on election night. "Bobby Bright supported Nancy Pelosi to be speaker."
During the primary, Bright ran a television ad with video footage of Roby saying Trump should step aside in 2016. "Roby turned her back on President Trump when he needed her most," the narrator in the ad says.
Alabama's 2nd congressional district is a conservative swath stretching from the capital city of Montgomery through the peanut and cotton fields of rural southeast Alabama. The district has a strong military presence, home to both Maxwell Air Force Base and Fort Rucker.
Bright has roots in both ends of the district. The 13th of 14 children born into a sharecropping family, he became a lawyer and spent 10 years as mayor of Montgomery. He was elected to Congress as a Democrat in 2008— like other candidates boosted by a wave of African-American turnout — but touted his independent voting record, including his votes against his party's key proposals, including health care reform.
"My record has been very conservative," said Bright who refers to himself as "country-raised."
While Bright hammered at Roby on the Trump comments in an advertisement, his campaign stops focus on more local issues, such as if Roby is on the agriculture and armed services committees most important to the district and her availability in the district.
"It's not just Trump," Bright said.
Robert Cobb, a retired railroad conductor from Wetumpka was handing out hard signs for Bright in front of Sisters' Restaurant in Troy the day after the primary. Cobb said Roby's disavowing of Trump "hurt her bad."
"It really did hurt her bad. She can say what she wants to now about changing her ways and all that," Cobb said.
The sensitivity of the Alabama race is on display in how Roby's colleagues are handling the results. Ohio Rep. Steve Stivers, chairman of the House GOP's campaign committee, released a statement praising Roby and offering support. But Stivers' aides did not respond to specific questions Wednesday about whether the national party will spend money on Roby's behalf during the runoff — and certainly the committee would prefer not to, because every dollar spent in a GOP stronghold district is money that cannot be directed to more competitive districts that will determine whether Republicans maintain their majority after the midterms.
State Rep. Barry Moore, who came in third in the race, said Bright and Roby are both carrying some negatives.
"A lot of Republicans down here feel that Martha betrayed them. And a lot of people still see Bobby as an Obama Democrat, or a Pelosi Democrat."