As soon as the MoonPie drops on the side of the RSA Trustmark building and Collective Soul breaks out into its rendition of “Auld Lang Syne,” we will not only be marking the dawn of a new decade, but also when the gloves are coming off in Alabama’s U.S. Senate race.
Up until now, there have been a few jabs here and there. The late entry of former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made it more emotional for the participants. Other than that, it has been a subdued campaign.
All eyes are on what might happen in the primary on March 3.
If you trust the post-qualifying, ballot-test polling, Sessions leads the field with mid-to-upper 30s percentage support. He is followed by former Auburn head football coach Tommy Tuberville, who is polling in the upper 20s and low 30s. Out lurking are U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Fairhope, in the upper teens and low 20s, and former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore in the high single digits.
Also on the ballot will be Alabama’s first opportunity to vote for President Donald Trump. If you believe what the consultants are telling their candidates, which is a homespun-ism to the effect of Alabamians loving some Crimson Tide, grits and Trump, the state should get a significant turnout number for the primary.
In addition to the presidential and senatorial primaries are some intriguing down-ballot races, including Republican primaries for Alabama’s first and second congressional districts and a handful of statewide judicial races.
However, the contest for the GOP’s nod on who will face incumbent Democrat U.S. Sen. Doug Jones probably will not be settled on March 3.
If the March 3 outcome resembles the current polling, we will have a runoff on March 31. That’s where the crystal ball gets murky.
As of now, Sessions has strong poll numbers, but anything less than 50 percent for him is underwhelming. Sessions represented Alabama for 20 years in the U.S. Senate. His name identification for the sake of this election is near 100 percent.
In other words, we all know who Jeff Sessions is. Most of us are aware of his record as a U.S. senator. Most of us are also likely aware of the drama between him and Trump. He is a known commodity, yet he’s only polling in the mid-to-upper 30s.
That is a signal there will be at least some likely voters in a March 31 primary runoff who know about Sessions but will decide to take a pass on him as their choice to serve in the U.S. Senate.
Sessions could pick up some support from the candidates defeated in the primary, but will it be enough? Jeff Sessions will have to work for it if he wants to regain the seat he occupied from 1997 to 2017.
The March 31 runoff will present challenges to both candidates. Unlike the primary, Trump will not be on the ballot. That will likely mean a much lower turnout. Name identification, which is a benefit for Sessions and Tuberville, will not be as much of an advantage.
If you compare the profiles of the average March 3 and March 31 voters, the March 31 voter is much more motivated. They are also likely more engaged in the political process.
They are also more likely to be residents of Alabama’s first or second congressional districts, which will likely have congressional primary runoff contests on the ballot. The GOP candidates in those two districts will invest time and money into a get-out-the-vote effort for their races.
There is one other thing with which Sessions and his campaign must grapple: his feud with Trump and the negative sentiment among voters as a result of it.
Back in November, one of Sessions’ first campaign appearances was at a monthly meeting of the Madison County Republican Men’s Club, which sported a few hundred in attendance. However, there were a handful of attendees who were not pleased with Sessions and blamed him for Trump’s impeachment.
Whether or not that criticism is justified does not matter. It is out there, and it will motivate some to go to the ballot box on March 31. There’s an axiom in elections stating people are more likely to go and vote against something than for something.
If Sessions’ opponent is Tuberville, there also is a problematic component. Tuberville has the support of a lot of Auburn football fans. Even though it did not end well for Tuberville at Auburn, a lot of Auburn fans remember the Tuberville years fondly, including a 2004 undefeated season and six consecutive Iron Bowl wins.
That perhaps creates a 20 percent to 25 percent floor for Tuberville in a potential head-to-head matchup against Sessions.
Where Sessions will excel is fundraising. With the backing of U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, Sessions will have the ability to carpet-bomb Alabama’s five media markets, which is no small thing.
However, if history is precedent … remember that Luther Strange had a similar money advantage over Roy Moore in 2017, and we know how that worked out.
All eyes are on the March 3 primary. But the lower-turnout March 31 runoff is where the GOP side of the ticket will be settled, and it should be a completely different kind of election.
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