In Alabama, A Raucous Race To Fill Jeff Sessions' Senate Seat

Jul 28, 2017
Originally published on July 31, 2017 5:24 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

As speculation continues in Washington over Attorney General Jeff Sessions' future, in his home state, Alabama, there's a raucous race for his former Senate seat. And President Trump is playing a big role in that race. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: The top three contenders in this crowded GOP primary include an incumbent nicknamed Big Luther Strange, Roy Moore, the so-called Ten Commandments judge, and Congressman Mo Brooks, who launched a controversial political ad this week. It features the scene from the shooting at a congressional baseball practice.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Stay down. Stay down. Stay down.

ELLIOTT: A caption reads, Mo Brooks gives his belt as a tourniquet to help the wounded. And it then shows video of Brooks being interviewed at the site. The four-term congressman is a member of the House Freedom Caucus and never one to shy from controversy. Brooks has talked repeatedly about what he calls the Democrats' war on whites. Now he's calling on his opponents to drop out so Jeff Sessions can have his old seat back instead of putting up with taunts from the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MO BROOKS: The public verbal abuse that President Trump has given to Attorney General Jeff Sessions is not helping matters at all.

ELLIOTT: Luther Strange dismisses the idea as a desperate attention grab. Strange is the 6-foot-9 incumbent who has high-dollar backing from Republican leaders. But he's come under scrutiny for the way he got the job. He was Alabama's attorney general and was appointed earlier this year by then-Governor Robert Bentley. At the time, Strange was investigating Bentley for misusing the governor's office to hide an affair. Strange is campaigning as the candidate who has President Trump's back. And he's trying to taint Mo Brooks with the worst kind of insult in Republican circles - ads that juxtapose Brooks with Democrat Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader, and that use Brooks' own words knocking down then-candidate Donald Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

BROOKS: I don't think you can trust Donald Trump with anything he says. He has alienated so many people in Republican Party ranks through his callous insults.

DAVID MOWERY: It's an effective hit.

ELLIOTT: David Mowery is a political consultant in Montgomery. He says in Alabama, standing with Trump gives you an edge. But now the president's feud with Sessions complicates things for the candidates.

MOWERY: It's an interesting needle to thread because they have to both support the former senator from Alabama that's been wildly popular here, and then they also have to find a way to support President Trump, who's even more wildly popular here in the Republican primary electorate.

ELLIOTT: Mowery and most observers expect the August 15 primary to end up in a runoff. And he says don't count out former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, the religious conservative who has been removed from the bench twice now - once for refusing to remove a giant Ten Commandments monument from the state judicial building, and then last year for defying the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage. He draws a crowd at a local GOP event outside Birmingham.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROY MOORE: How you doing? Roll tide. Roll tide.

ELLIOTT: His message is that he's the fighter, while the Washington establishment is behind his opponents.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MOORE: Notice who they don't want up there.

ELLIOTT: The message resonates with voter Sharon Denham, who says Luther Strange and Mo Brooks might be considered front-runners, but she's not convinced.

SHARON DENHAM: I don't know. They are more typical politicians to me. And right now, I personally am kind of looking for someone who's not your typical Montgomery, D.C. politician.

ELLIOTT: Someone more like President Trump. Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF HYPNOTIC BRASS ENSEMBLE'S "BALLICKI BONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.