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National

Alabama Senate Primary Turns Into Bitter Slug-Fest On Republican Side

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It's election day in Alabama. Voters are picking Republican and Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate seat that opened up when Jeff Sessions became attorney general. On the Republican side, the race has become a bitter slugfest. And joining us now to talk about it is Gigi Douban, who is news director of member station WBHM in Birmingham. Hiya, Gigi.

GIGI DOUBAN, BYLINE: Hi there.

SIEGEL: And first, someone has taken Jeff Sessions' seat in the Senate, Luther Strange. Usually being the incumbent gives a candidate a leg up. Why is this race on the Republican primary so competitive?

DOUBAN: Well, Strange was Alabama's attorney general. He was appointed when Sessions left. There's a big cloud hanging over him, mostly in the way that he was appointed by former Governor Robert Bentley. Bentley resigned after a sex scandal. Strange, who was then attorney general, has been accused of holding off an investigation into the governor in exchange for the Senate seat.

SIEGEL: And who is Luther Strange's top competition in the Republican primary?

DOUBAN: That would be Roy Moore. He is leading in most polls. And it's worth noting that Roy Moore and his wife were reportedly going to cast their ballots in today's election on horseback.

SIEGEL: I assume they would dismount to actually cast their ballots. But you say they're going to the polls on horseback.

DOUBAN: You would think. You would think.

SIEGEL: He's a very controversial figure in Alabama, Moore.

DOUBAN: He is. He's the state's chief justice. He was removed two times from the bench, once for putting a Ten Commandments monument inside the state judicial building and another time for defying the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling legalizing gay marriage. He's very beloved by evangelical voters here. He's got a lot of grass roots support. And then we have Mo Brooks rounding out the pack. He's a congressman and a member of the Freedom Caucus. Brooks has been controversial before, too. Once he claimed there was a war on white people in this country. So it's been said that all three of the top three GOP contenders each have their own baggage that they're bringing to this race.

SIEGEL: Donald Trump easily won the Republican presidential primary in Alabama, and then he carried Alabama. What factor is Trump playing in this primary?

DOUBAN: Well, Trump has endorsed Luther Strange not once, but twice on Twitter. And there was a robocall that went out to Alabama voters from the president endorsing Strange as well. That's notable because Strange also has the support of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who's been feuding with Trump lately. So even though Trump and McConnell haven't seen eye to eye on a lot, they're backing the same candidate.

SIEGEL: Now, there's also a Democratic primary for the Senate race. Who's running in that one?

DOUBAN: There is. There's Doug Jones. He's well-known here as a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted two Klansmen in the reopened case of the 1963 Baptist Church bombing that killed four girls. And there are seven other candidates.

SIEGEL: And if in either of these races no candidate reaches 50 percent of the vote, there will be a runoff?

DOUBAN: That's right. If no one reaches 50 percent there will be a runoff next month. And the general election won't be until December. So some Democrats think that if Roy Moore wins the Republican nomination, they may stand an outside chance of winning the seat. And when I asked Democrat Doug Jones about that, he said any of the Republican candidates present a huge opportunity for the Democrats to win the general election.

SIEGEL: Gigi Douban of member station WBHM in Birmingham, Ala., thanks.

DOUBAN: Great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.