In less than a week Alabamians will head to the polls to cast a ballot for who they want to serve alongside Sen. Richard Shelby in the United States Senate.
This primary election is unique for the Yellowhammer State. The race is happening in an off-cycle year, after an emotionally draining presidential campaign. Additionally, the primary is occurring in the heat of August, a time of the year when voters aren’t accustomed to going to the voting booth.
With all these unusual election elements, it is anyone’s guess what headlines will dominate when Alabamians awake on Aug. 16.
How did we get here?
Last November, the seemingly impossible — and, to many in Washington, D.C., unthinkable — happened: Donald Trump won the presidency. Trump’s election opened a number of Cabinet possibilities for then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, one of Trump’s earliest big-name supporters.
Trump eventually appointed, and the Senate confirmed, Sessions as U.S. Attorney General.
Luther Strange, Alabama’s former attorney general, immediately announced his intentions to run for Sessions’ seat. As a stopgap before a special election could take place, now-former Gov. Robert Bentley offered Strange the open seat, which Strange accepted.
Bentley exited office last April after he was exposed for having an extramarital affair with his political aide, Rebekah Mason.
As one of her first official acts in office, Bentley’s replacement, Gov. Kay Ivey, immediately moved the special election for the seat from 2018 to this August. When the qualification deadline passed in May, nine Republican candidates and six Democratic candidates had declared their candidacy for the seat.
Three Republicans emerge as front-runners
Early on, it appeared this election could be a cakewalk for Strange. He was officially the incumbent. He was going to have the backing of the Senate Republican leadership and would be able to raise enough money to outspend anyone who might think they could compete against him, into oblivion.
But Strange’s appointment has been controversial due to Bentley’s involvement and humiliating exit from office. The controversy and Strange’s reputation as an “establishment” figure has opened the door for at least two other candidates to be serious threats for the Republican nomination, U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks and former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore.
Polling, which historically has not been the most reliable of indicators in Alabama elections, shows a tight three-way race. Early polls had Moore with an advantage over Brooks and Strange, but that gap has narrowed.
Should a candidate in this contest be unable to earn 50 percent of the vote, the next step in the nominating process is a runoff between the field’s top two. As of now, that possibility appears to be practically a certainty.
Strange hails from Mountain Brook, the wealthiest municipality in Alabama and a suburb of Birmingham, the state’s most populous city.
While Strange seemingly has population on his side, it has been difficult to pin down exactly where his base’s enthusiasm lies. The former Alabama attorney general is 2-1 in statewide campaigns and the area boasts a surprising dearth of Strange signage. In fact, there is none on the major thoroughfares.
In 2006, he won the Republican nomination for Alabama lieutenant governor, handily defeating George Wallace Jr., son of the iconic former Gov. George Wallace, and current opponent Mo Brooks. In what would be a bad year for Republicans, Strange lost in the general election to Jim Folsom Jr., son of another iconic former Alabama governor, “Big” Jim Folsom.
Strange would come back in 2010 to win the Alabama attorney general’s seat, beating incumbent Troy King for the GOP nomination and Democrat James Anderson in the general election. In 2014, Strange was re-elected with nearly 60 percent of the vote.
In this race, he is optimistic.
“I’ve always had tough races, but I’ve been blessed to have been elected statewide twice, and we’re just taking our message to the people and it’s going really well,” Strange told Lagniappe over the weekend at a candidates’ forum in the Birmingham suburb of Trussville.
Brooks is a former Madison County commissioner and now U.S. congressman, first elected to public office in 1982. That 35-year run has allowed Brooks to build a dedicated following in the northern part of the state, which includes Huntsville.
It will be difficult for any of the candidates to top Brooks in any of the precincts north of the Tennessee River and a high turnout in Madison County could be Brooks’ secret weapon in a low-turnout event.
“I would hope we have strong turnout throughout the state,” Brooks told Lagniappe in a phone interview. Brooks added that he hoped those that “know him best” would be the ones not to be swayed by any of the advertising attacking him.
Anyone who has followed Alabama politics over the years knows Roy Moore. Moore comes out of Etowah County, where he originally made a name for himself in the 1990s as a circuit court judge with a wooden plaque displaying the Ten Commandments mounted behind him in his courtroom.
That display drew the ire of the American Civil Liberties Union, a relatively unpopular organization in Alabama. The ACLU filed suit in 1995 and the attendant controversy made Moore a national figure.
The attention Moore received from that suit catapulted him to win an election for chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.
Moore has continued to be a controversial figure. He twice won the statewide election for chief justice and in that role was twice removed from the bench.
His track record as a statewide candidate is mixed. Despite having two successful runs for chief justice, he also has had two unsuccessful runs for governor, drawing 33 percent of the vote in the Republican primary against incumbent Gov. Bob Riley in 2006 and just 19 percent in a crowded 2010 primary.
This senate race might be Moore’s best showing yet in a statewide race, given the competition he is facing. His two runs for chief justice were down-ballot races. This election he is running in the only race on the ballot.
At this late stage, depending on the poll, Moore is often shown to be the candidate to beat. In an interview with Lagniappe at a candidate event hosted by the Shelby County Republican Party on Friday, Moore was optimistic.
“We got the greatest grassroots support I’ve ever had,” Moore said. “We’ve got volunteers raising money for the campaign. I mean, it’s just that unusual. Social media is overwhelming.”
Moore insists it is not just name identification that has him as the top dog.
“People know what I stand for and they have known for a long time,” he said. “It’s not just name recognition. It’s identity recognition. I think people appreciate that I’ve stood up for the principles for which we were founded.”
Democrats have a contest
In a one-party state, as Alabama has been since the 2010 election, many often overlook the Democratic primary in statewide elections.
Presumably, the next officeholder in a statewide election is decided at the party level and that is why the candidates put such an effort into winning the Republican primary.
However, there are some who believe if Moore is the eventual nominee for the GOP, his caustic presence could motivate enough Democrats and crossover Republicans to show up in a low-turnout general election just to vote against him.
Seven candidates are vying for the Democratic Party’s nomination. Of those seven, two candidates have emerged as frontrunners: former U.S. Navy officer Robert Kennedy Jr. and former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones.
Jones made a name for himself as the Clinton-appointed U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama in the late 1990s leading the prosecution after the re-investigation of the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham.
However, some polling shows Jones with a large deficit compared to Kennedy — one that may allow for Kennedy to avoid a runoff by crossing the 50 percent threshold.
Turnout is the name of the game
Even with a local media hyperfocused on this contest, overall turnout is expected to be low given that the race is the only one on the ballot and is taking place less than a year after a contentious presidential election.
“A primary in general is going to have fewer voters than a general election, and this is sort of an unusual time for a primary,” Dr. Joseph L. Smith, chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Alabama, said in an interview with Lagniappe. “So, I won’t be too surprised if there’s very low voter turnout.”
The question is which candidate has the most dedicated supporters in an off-year contest.
That’s where geography could play a role.
Brooks represents Alabama’s 5th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives and has not faced a serious threat since his first run against incumbent Rep. Parker Griffith, a Republican who was elected two years earlier as a Democrat but switched parties in the middle of his term.
In his only other bid for statewide office, the 2006 lieutenant governor’s race, Brooks did not fare well. At the time, he was an unknown commodity outside his home region in northern Alabama’s Madison County.
Since 2006, Brooks has made more of a name for himself as a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus and more recently as one of the “heroes” of a shooting that took place at a baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia, before a charity congressional baseball game.
It would not be surprising to see Brooks outperform the polls on primary day given his affiliation with the conservative movement in Alabama. The conservative grassroots in the state tend to boast supporters who are willing to show up and vote, regardless of the stakes.
Roy Moore, whose home base is Etowah County, does not necessarily have one area of the state where he dominates. His supporters traditionally have been dispersed throughout Alabama. But he should still do well in precincts where the population is concerned about social issues.
One might look to counties that are still “dry” — that prohibit the sale of alcoholic beverages — as areas where Moore might be a strong vote-getter. The counties of Cullman, Blount, Monroe, Coffee and Geneva are all dry, but are in different parts of Alabama.
Such places, however, do not tend to be the most populous. Will those counties be enough for Roy Moore to back up his poll numbers?
Moore’s showing in the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary with 19 percent of ballots cast gave him a fourth-place finish behind Tim James, Bradley Byrne and Robert Bentley. Things could be different in a low-turnout contest.
“I would say that the more extreme voters who are more on the edges — the more extreme conservative voters and liberal voters are the ones who tend to show up for primaries,” Alabama’s Smith explained to Lagniappe. “It may be that Roy Moore’s support comes from that sector disproportionately. If you put those things together, it does suggest that a low-turnout election might be better for Roy Moore than if it was Brooks or Strange.”
Strange does not seem to have a particular hometown advantage, either. Although his home base is Mountain Brook, outside of Birmingham, one would have to believe his advantage lies with the more establishment parts of the GOP.
One indicator could be where Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, did well in the 2016 presidential primary. Although Rubio finished behind Donald Trump and Ted Cruz statewide, he was the top vote-getter in the parts of the “over the mountain” Birmingham suburbs of Vestavia Hills, Mountain Brook and Hoover as well as in the Spring Hill neighborhood of Mobile.
The well-funded Strange campaign doesn’t seem to be employing a strategy of targeting particular geographical areas but instead is saturating all five of Alabama’s media markets.
Trip Pittman, local spoiler?
Although he has not come close in polling to any of the three frontrunners in the GOP primary, Baldwin County’s State Sen. Trip Pittman should be a factor in the Republican vote-rich precincts in Southwest Alabama.
Political insiders have told Lagniappe Pittman could take away votes from Luther Strange and Mo Brooks in Mobile and Baldwin counties given his name recognition locally. In Baldwin County, Pittman’s vote-getting potential could be enough to give Roy Moore a shot at winning that county outright.
Pittman insists he’ll be more than just a Baldwin and Mobile county phenomenon. Last week Pittman started running radio spots all over the state, including in Birmingham and Huntsville.
“I’m from Birmingham,” Pittman said when asked by Lagniappe about his statewide strategy. “I was born in Birmingham. I’m from Jefferson County. I’m running statewide. I’m in the National Guard. You know, I serve as a state senator. I pass the budget that affects the whole state. I’m running in the whole state and you know, I’m looking for votes all across the state.”
The attack ad controversy
Both Moore and Brooks have been the targets of an attack ad campaign by the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC controlled by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that has been pro-Luther Strange.
Initially, the group focused on attacking Brooks with advertising that questioned his loyalty to President Trump, who overwhelmingly won both Alabama’s Republican presidential primary and the state in the 2016 general election.
The ads have focused on comments Brooks made while supporting Trump’s opponent Sen. Ted Cruz in last year’s GOP primary.
Brooks has called the attacks unfair and noted he eventually came around to support Trump in the presidential election with financial support to get out the vote in Florida. Additionally, Brooks has highlighted that he has backed all of Trump’s early legislation.
According to Brooks, the millions of dollars the Senate Leadership Fund has spent on Strange’s behalf will make the incumbent a toady for McConnell.
“Well, it’s quite clear that Luther Strange, if he wins, it will be because of loyalties to Mitch McConnell,” Brooks said to Lagniappe. “Kentucky already has two senators. They don’t need a third.”
In recent days, the Senate Leadership Fund has also started targeting Roy Moore. One of its ads, titled “More for Moore,” suggests that Moore and his wife financially benefited from his Foundation for Moral Law, an organization Moore was a part of after being removed the Alabama Supreme Court in 2003.
At the Shelby County GOP forum Aug. 3, in which both Strange and Moore participated, Moore condemned the attacks on his wife, adding that it “hurt him badly” to see her attacked.
Moore told Lagniappe, however, that people should not expect his campaign to levy a counteroffensive on the airwaves.
“I will not stoop and demean myself to that level,” Moore said. “I will not criticize a candidate. I haven’t done so far in my advertisements. Tonight, I just simply stated that there was a lot of false advertising going on. And it’s very unique in a race where there is three at the top, and one of them is blistering both candidates with false advertising. Somebody should look at that.”
Birmingham’s WERC talk host JT Nysewander asked Strange about his opponents’ complaints on Sunday at the Trussville candidates’ forum. Strange replied that he had no control over the content of the Senate Leadership Fund’s ads.
When Lagniappe asked Strange about Brooks’ contention that he would be Kentucky’s third senator if elected, Strange dismissed the comments altogether.
“There’s no whining in politics,” Strange said. “I’m not whining about the Never Trump PACs against me, so that’s just part of politics.”
Strange’s reliance on massive ad buys is keeping him in the race and some polls have him way out in front. But will it be enough in lieu of a ground game to get out the vote on his behalf?
If it is, McConnell and his Senate Leadership Fund will be able to flex their muscle in future Republican primary contests and perhaps even bolster their fundraising efforts.
However, if it fails it could send a political shockwave throughout the country. If Strange is unable to make the runoff next week, it could raise the same types of questions House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi faced about her leadership role after her party bet big on Jon Ossoff in a June special election in Georgia. Ossoff lost by four points to Karen Handel.
Republicans now control the House, the Senate and the White House, but so far have not been able to deliver on their big promises of the last eight years when they were out of power. Much of that has been because of the Republican-controlled Senate’s inability to pass any significant legislation under McConnell’s leadership.
If McConnell is unable to push Strange across the finish line this year, it could send the signal McConnell is vulnerable and imperil him as the Senate’s top Republican.
Jason Johnson contributed to this story.