Given his famous 6-foot-9 height, it’s not surprising that Sen. Luther Strange has an affinity for basketball, which he played in his younger days.
So when it came time to address his supporters in Homewood after winning a berth in a Republican primary runoff election for the Senate seat he was appointed to earlier this year, Strange used an analogy with roots in hoops.
“Eight on one has kind of been the game so far,” the incumbent said. “Now it will be one on one. And I like the odds in a one-on-one basketball game.”
But there won’t be a wooden court or squeaking sneakers in his next contest.
Strange finished second in Tuesday’s GOP primary behind Roy Moore, the two-time chief justice of Alabama who was removed from office both times after defying state laws and judicial regulations.
With 98 percent of all ballot boxes reported at 11 p.m. Tuesday, Moore had won 157,794 votes, or 39.5 percent of the total. Strange was second with 128,297 votes, or 32.1 percent. U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks from the state’s 1st Congressional District placed third and missed the runoff election; he won 78,527 votes, or 19.7 percent. State Sen. Trip Pittman was a distant fourth in the 10-candidate field.
Moore and Strange will face off in a runoff election Sept. 26.
The winner of the GOP runoff will take on Democratic nominee Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney from Birmingham. Jones easily handled a field of eight candidates, winning 104,549 votes, 65.6 percent of all votes cast in the Democratic primary. Robert Kennedy Jr. of Mobile — no relation to the famous Kennedy family from Massachusetts — was a distant second.
Light Turnout, Inactive Issues at the Polls
Turnout in the primary was predicted to be light, and that prediction proved true. Secretary of State John Merrill said early in the day that he expected between 20 percent and 25 percent of all registered voters to go to the polls. Later in the day, he revised that estimate downward to between 10 percent and 15 percent, and by 11 p.m., the official turnout percentage was clocked at 17.62 percent, with 578,326 voters taking part out of 3,281,781 registered.
The only areas experiencing heavy turnout were the few places where additional issues were on the ballot, such as a referendum in Walker County on raising the sales tax by 1 percent. More than 12,500 voters went to the polls in the county, and the tax measure was defeated by 530 votes.
With such a light turnout, there were no wholesale problems reported at the polls. But there were a few glitches. A portion of people who went out to vote statewide arrived at the polls to discover they had been moved to an inactive voter list – including Brooks and state Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham.
People whose names were on the inactive list were allowed to vote and have their names restored to the active voter list. But concerns have been raised that the process could be intimidating to some voters and misunderstood by some poll workers, eventually leading to people being denied the right to vote.
The issue has come up because the state is in the midst of a voter roll “refresh” to verify the validity of names on the rolls and remove people who have died, moved or for another reason have not been active voters. The Secretary of State’s Office sent out two rounds of postcards that were to be returned if they did not reach the voter named on the card. If both cards were returned, the voter was put on the inactive list. Voters’ names stay on the inactive list for eight years, then the names are removed from the voter rolls if that person has not voted.
Republican Push for Votes
Strange, who has been in the Senate for about six months, had strong backing out of Washington, but his appointment to that position has raised eyebrows at home.
Strange, the former Alabama attorney general, in November asked a legislative committee to suspend its investigation into then-Gov. Robert Bentley, saying it could interfere with work his office was doing. Bentley on Feb. 9 appointed Strange to fill the unexpired term of Sen. Jeff Sessions, who left the seat after being appointed as U.S. attorney general by President Donald Trump.
The appearance of a quid pro quo in the appointment was used against Strange by his opponents in the campaign.
But Strange was backed by numerous organizations with Washington ties, and in the week before the election, he was endorsed by Trump himself, both in a Twitter post and in recorded robo-calls made to Republican voters. Strange also benefitted from a massive campaign spend by the Senate Leadership Fund, a political action committee controlled by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky. The PAC also has ties to the American Crossroads super-PAC organization run by longtime GOP operative Karl Rove. SLF ads promoting Strange and attacking Moore and Brooks saturated the commercial time on Alabama television stations and cable news channels, particularly Fox News, as well as popping up during conservative talk radio programs in the four weeks before the election.
Moore tried to use Strange’s Washington connections against him in the campaign. At his acceptance speech before supporters in Montgomery on Tuesday night, Moore said, “The attempt by the silk-stocking Washington elitists to control the vote of the people of Alabama has failed.”
Brooks and Moore were endorsed by several figures associated with the strongly conservative wing of the Republican Party. Brooks was promoted by talk-show host Sean Hannity, who began his radio career in the Huntsville-Decatur market, which Brooks represents in the House. Fellow talk show host Mark Levin and conservative author Ann Coulter also lined up behind Brooks.
Moore, long a favorite of the Christian conservative wing of the GOP for his placement of the Ten Commandments in the State Supreme Court building, was endorsed by Dr. James Dobson, former head of Focus on the Family, and former gubernatorial candidate Tim James.
By election day, various groups had spent more than $5 million on the race. Strange alone raked in almost $3 million of that amount.
Despite the heavy spending on Strange’s behalf, Moore led all but one of the eight opinion polls taken before the election. The polls underestimated Moore’s winning percentage, with a Trafalgar Group poll taken Aug. 12-13 coming closest; it pegged Moore’s support at 38 percent.
Jones’ Road to the Nomination
Jones did particularly well in Jefferson County, one of few Democratic strongholds in heavily Republican Alabama. His raw vote total, 29,291, was just barely less than that of Strange and Moore combined on the GOP side.
Strange took 18,127 votes in the county, followed by Moore with 11,316 percent and Brooks with 8,558.
Jones, a native of Fairfield, gained fame for his prosecution of Ku Klux Klan members Bobby Cherry and Thomas Blanton in the murders of four African-American girls during the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. Blanton and Cherry were found guilty in 2001 and 2002, respectively. This race is Jones’ first run for elected office.