In a primary election scheduled for Aug. 15, Alabamians will have the opportunity to choose a new United States senator on their own, or retain one the former governor chose for them. While the general election is not until Dec. 12, it is largely expected that whichever Republican candidate advances past the primary will likely defeat any Democratic candidate in a statewide general election.
First, a brief recap. After former Senator Jeff Sessions was confirmed by his colleagues to become U.S. Attorney General in February, Luther Strange accepted an appointment to fill the seat from then-Gov. Robert Bentley. Initially, Bentley intended for Strange to complete Sessions’ unexpired term ending in 2018, but when Bentley was convicted of two misdemeanors and removed from office April 10, one of Gov. Kay Ivey’s first acts upon assuming office was to advance the vote to a special election this year.
Strange accepted the seat with a black cloud hanging over his head. As Alabama Attorney General, he recused himself from an investigation into former Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, accepting the Senate appointment while a special prosecutor was assigned to the Bentley case. Months later, according to polling and federal campaign finance reports, Strange is the frontrunner in what appears to be a three-way race against U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks and former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who was removed from office himself this year for refusing to recognize federal laws governing same-sex marriages.
Also campaigning is Baldwin County’s Trip Pittman, who is vacating his seat in the state Legislature.
“The fact is I’m a businessman,” Pittman said. “I’ve been [through] the process. For 10 years, I balanced budgets and started paying back debts.”
A believer in term limits, he said he wouldn’t serve more than two full terms if elected.
While a member of the State Senate, Pittman said he fought the expansion of the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” in Alabama by not expanding Medicaid and stood up for one of the toughest “illegal immigration” bills in the country.
Pittman accused Strange, a former lobbyist, of “soliciting” the nomination in order to do a favor for Bentley. It was only after Strange recused himself that the investigation led to Bentley’s resignation, he said.
While Strange is leading in fundraising with more than $1.6 million worth of individual itemized contributions, Pittman’s effort has been on par with Brooks and Moore, all of whom have raised between $200,000 and $250,000. Notably, at $756,176, Strange has received more money from political action committees than the three leading challengers have overall.
With $1.4 million in disbursements — primarily for advertising efforts — the appointed incumbent also has outspent all the other candidates combined.
Meanwhile, a recent poll released by Delphi Analytica, surveying 935 registered Republican voters in Alabama, predicted “a close race” between Strange, Brooks and Moore, with Pittman only carrying about 10 percent of the vote. The poll also indicated 11 percent of registered Republican voters would cross over and vote for Democratic candidate Doug Jones.
In the primary, voters have the option of voting on either the Democratic ballot or the Republican ballot, but cannot vote on both.
During a recent campaign stop in Mobile, Jones said there were a number of reasons he decided to run for the open seat, even if his chances are slim.
“I certainly don’t like … the direction the administration is taking,” he said. “I dang sure don’t like the way Mitch McConnell is running the Senate behind closed doors. … ”
Jones, a former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama under President Bill Clinton, said he wants to put party affiliation behind serving the people of the state.
“I think we’ve been embarrassed enough by our elected officials and we need somebody who’s going to be a leader,” Jones said. “[We need] somebody who’s not just going to be a lapdog for the administration, or any one political party, but an independent thinker; somebody who’s going to represent and sit across the table from people and talk about things that matter to them on a daily basis. I think I’ve got that opportunity, and frankly, I think the state is ready for a change.”
Other Republicans in the Aug. 15 primary include James Beretta, a pain management specialist from Birmingham; Jame Breault, an enlisted chaplain at Maxwell Air Force Base; Montgomery-based gastroenterologist Randy Brinson; Mary Maxwell, who moved from Australia to Montgomery to run for Senate after reading an article about the race on the internet; and Bryan Peebles, a 37-year-old Birmingham businessman.
The Democratic ballot also includes Will Boyd, a Florence-based pastor; Vann Caldwell, a Talladega County constable; Orange Beach marketing consultant Jason E. Fisher; Michael Hansen, an openly gay director of an environmental advocacy group; Robert Kennedy Jr., a Navy veteran and graduate of Duke University, who is not related to the Kennedy political family; Brian McGee, an Army veteran of the Vietnam War and self-described jack-of-all-trades; and Charles Nana, an African immigrant and businessman who placed second in the last Democratic primary for Senate in Alabama in 2016. Alabama has never elected a black or female senator.
Whomever advances and wins the general election is likely to represent the state as long as they wish, as Alabamians are historically reluctant to unseat sitting senators. Sessions was in the Senate for 20 years before he accepted President Donald Trump’s nomination in February. His predecessor, Howell Heflin, represented the state for 18 years.
Alabama’s other U.S. senator, Richard Shelby, has been in Washington for three decades. At 83, he’s currently the fourth oldest senator behind Dianne Feinstein of California, Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Orrin Hatch of Utah.
Dale Liesch contributed to this story.
CORRECTION: This article originally incorrectly stated then Attorney General Luther Strange recused himself from an investigation into then Gov. Robert Bentley. Strange recused himself from an investigation into former Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, Strange’s replacement, Steve Marshall, recused himself from the Bentley investigation after Strange had left for his appointed position in the U.S. Senate..