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What To Watch For In Tonight’s Alabama Senate Primaries

The 2017 special elections beat marches on in Alabama on Tuesday. Democrats and Republicans are voting in primaries to fill the U.S. Senate seat that was vacated by now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote in a given primary, a runoff between the top two vote-getters will be held on Sept. 26. The Republican race looks nearly certain to end in a runoff, while it is far from clear what’s going to happen with the Democrats.

Perhaps the most interesting story on the Republican side is incumbent Sen. Luther Strange’s inability to guarantee himself a spot in the runoff. Strange, who was appointed to Sessions’s seat, has generally been polling in the mid-to-high 20s. That’s good enough for second place in the field of nine candidates; he’s trailing former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, who has generally been in the 30s and seems poised to reach the runoff. And Strange is running ahead of — but not that far ahead of — U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, who has generally been stuck in the high teens.

Roy Moore leads Alabama’s GOP Senate primary

August polling for the 2017 Alabama Republican Senate primary

END DATE POLLSTER MO BROOKS ROY MOORE LUTHER STRANGE
Aug. 13 Trafalgar Group 17% 38% 24%
Aug. 12 Emerson College 15 29 32
Aug. 10 Trafalgar Group 20 35 23
Aug. 9 Cygnal/L2 18 31 23
Aug. 9 Strategy Research 19 35 29
Aug. 7 JMC Analytics and Polling 20 32 24
Aug. 3 Red Racing Horses 18 31 29
Average 18 33 26

One would think that an incumbent senator with the backing of both President Trump, who endorsed Strange last week, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wouldn’t have to sweat making the runoff. It’s not quite that simple, of course, as appointed incumbents generally don’t enjoy the same electoral boost that elected incumbents tend to get. Additionally, Strange was appointed by disgraced former Gov. Robert Bentley, who later resigned amid a sex scandal. These days it’s also probably not exactly a help to be associated with McConnell, whose popularity has dropped among Republicans. Finally, although Strange got Trump’s backing, it came late in the race, and Strange did not endorse Trump during last year’s primary.

Still, it’ll be interesting to see how well Strange does and how much support Trump’s backing brings.

The candidates have somewhat distinct constituencies, as I noted last week. Moore’s coalition of evangelical Christians represents a large chunk of the likely primary electorate. It’s almost as large as the 85 percent of likely primary voters who approve of the job Trump is doing — Strange is running his strongest among that group. Brooks, a member of the House’s Freedom Caucus, has sought the endorsement of outside conservative groups but has generally run behind Moore and Strange among voters who describe themselves as “very conservative.”

Beyond the candidates’ varying ideological bases, the polling indicates that they may also have different geographic bases — something to keep in mind as the results start coming in. Multiple polls show that Moore is strongest in the southern part of the state, especially around the Dothan metropolitan area in the southeast.1 Strange generally polls best around Birmingham, in the central part of the state. Meanwhile, Brooks has struggled to get traction outside of his home congressional district around Huntsville in the north.2

If Brooks misses out on the runoff, he will have McConnell, in part, to thank. McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund has run a ton negative ads against him. If Strange finishes in third place, it would demonstrate how toxic McConnell is with the Republican base right now — and perhaps signal that Trump’s sway has diminished as well.

Polling for the Republican runoff is limited, but whoever emerges as the nominee would be a heavy favorite in the December general election. No Democrat has won a Senate race in Alabama since 1992, and Trump won the state by 28 percentage points last November.

Democrats are hoping, however, that a divided Republican field, along with a weak national environment for Republicans, will give them a chance in the general election. That would be especially likely if Moore — who was removed from his post as the state’s chief justice in 2003 for refusing to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments and who was again suspended from office more recently for failing to enforce the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage — became the Republican nominee.

There’s just one problem for Democrats: The candidate who wins their nomination may do so not on the strength of his qualifications but because he shares a name with someone famous.

Some polls show Robert Kennedy Jr., who is unrelated to the famous Kennedy clan and was a political unknown before this race started, leading the Democratic field.

Uncertainty in the Alabama Democratic Senate primary

Public polling for the 2017 Alabama Democratic Senate primary

END DATE POLLSTER DOUG JONES ROBERT KENNEDY JR.
Aug. 12 Emerson College 40% 23%
Aug. 9 Strategy Research 30 40
July 24 Strategy Research 28 49
Average 33 37

Although there isn’t any reliable polling yet for the general election, Democrats probably need their primary voters to choose Doug Jones, not Kennedy, for the party to have any shot in December. Jones is a former U.S. Attorney and was recently endorsed by former Vice President Joe Biden. Unlike Kennedy, who, bizarrely, refuses to discuss his current job, Jones has a resume to run on.

It is possible that the primary polls aren’t telling the full story for Democratic candidates. Remember, this is an off-year special election in August. It’s a Democratic primary in a deeply red state. Turnout is probably going to be very low, and pollsters may not be reaching a sample that is representative of the people who will turn out on Tuesday. Additionally, it wouldn’t be surprising if many voters, busy with summer vacations and whatnot, tune in to the primary only at the last minute and make up their minds on election day. That may be why Jones suddenly jumped out into the lead in an Emerson College poll conducted over the past few days.

Either way, a September runoff between Kennedy and Jones is possible. There are eight candidates on the ballot, and polls indicate that there’s enough of a split in the vote that it’s possible no one will reach 50 percent. That would probably be good news for the guy (Jones) with the less-famous name — the extra innings would give him time to build a reputation.

Of course, with Donald Trump in the White House, it would be silly to dismiss the idea that someone with no political experience and a famous name could win a primary. Case in point: Someone named Gene Kelly (not the actor) placed highly in Texas Democratic primaries on multiple occasions, despite having no political experience.

Footnotes

  1. Interestingly, Moore actually lives in Gallant, which is in the northeast part of the state.

  2. Depending on where the first votes come in from, you shouldn’t be fooled if a fourth candidate, state Sen. Trip Pittman, starts out strong. Pittman is from Montrose in the southwest, where polling has him as high as 20 percent. Pittman is much weaker in the rest of the state.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

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