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Ala. Senate Primary Pits Establishment Republicans Against Trump Loyalists


Voters in Alabama head to the polls today. They're voting in a primary election for the U.S. Senate seat that used to belong to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The man appointed to temporarily fill his seat is Luther Strange. He wants to keep the job. And he has the backing of both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Trump. Yet, the race has become a proxy fight between establishment Republicans and Trump loyalists.

NPR's lead political editor, Domenico Montanaro, is following the race, and he joins us now. Hey, Domenico.


CHANG: Wait, so how does this work? McConnell and Trump are pushing the exact same candidate, but the race is turning into a contest between the establishment and Trump supporters? What's going on?

MONTANARO: Yeah, I mean, the lines here are definitely blurred. You know, Trump and McConnell sort of have this delicate relationship with each other, to say the least, where Trump has been sort of attacking McConnell because the health care bill hadn't gotten passed...

CHANG: Right.

MONTANARO: ...And he wants to separate himself from him. At the same time while in Alabama - very strong Trump country - everyone kind of wants to be like Donald Trump. Everyone's sort of trying to sound like Donald Trump.

CHANG: (Laughter).

MONTANARO: But Luther Strange is not a Donald Trump-type character. He's much more of an establishment-type figure close to Mitch McConnell. And that's who Trump has backed, maybe reluctantly. He cut a robocall ad for him last night. But you've got these blurred lines where the candidate who definitely does not sound like Donald Trump is the candidate of Trump.

CHANG: Well, tell us a little bit more about Luther Strange, the incumbent here.

MONTANARO: Well, Luther Strange has been in this seat since only February because Jeff Sessions became attorney general. His appointment was very controversial. And this has been the big problem for Strange in this entire race. He was appointed by the former governor, Robert Bentley, when Bentley was mired in scandal. Strange was the attorney general. He was investigating the governor. And he...


MONTANARO: Right. Exactly. And...

CHANG: So it was convenient for the governor to install Strange as a senator.

MONTANARO: You know, and that's been a lot of what has been going on on the ground. When you talk to voters there, they've been saying that they - that while they say there wasn't anything going on, they're skeptical.

CHANG: There's another candidate, Mo Brooks, the congressman, and stiff competition from Judge Roy Moore, the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, who I remember generated a bit of controversy at that court. Remind us what happened with Moore.

MONTANARO: Yeah. First we should say that this is a top-two primary. So in other words, this is not the end of the race. This is only the beginning. The top two today will move on to a runoff against each other. Provided that somebody doesn't get above 50 percent today, that runoff will take place in September. And Roy Moore has actually been leading in the polls.

And Moore was the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court back in 2003. You might remember he was the same head of the Alabama Supreme Court who put those Ten Commandments out front of the Alabama Supreme Court and was let go from the court. But that has been sort of a badge of honor for him...

CHANG: (Laughter).

MONTANARO: ...During this race. And he's very popular with evangelical leaders.

CHANG: That's NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.