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Alabama Voters Go To Polls To Fill Seat Left Vacant By Jeff Sessions


We're going to talk more about Charlottesville later in the program, but we want to spend some time now looking at a few stories that will be in the news next week. Let's start in Alabama for our weekly segment Worlds You'll Hear. There's a special Senate election there to fill the seat long held by Jeff Sessions, now attorney general. And in the Republican primary, the emerging theme is drain the swamp. NPR's Debbie Elliott has been watching the race and joins us now from her home in south Alabama. Hi, Debbie.


SMITH: So, Debbie, words we'll hear - drain the swamp. We'll get back to that in a moment. But first, why don't you give us the lay of the land? Who's running?

ELLIOTT: Well, let's start with the Republican primary. There's a really packed field, but three contenders are kind of standing out at the top. There's the incumbent Luther Strange, there is Congressman Mo Brooks and there's former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore. Now, let me tell you a little bit about each of them. Roy Moore is known as the Ten Commandments judge because, at one point, he put this giant Ten Commandments monument in the state judicial building.

SMITH: Oh, wow.

ELLIOTT: He's twice been removed from the bench for defying federal courts - once because he refused to take down that monument and once when he defied the U.S. Supreme Court same-sex marriage ruling. Now, he has very strong support among religious conservatives in Alabama, and he's really got a lot of name recognition, too.

Luther Strange, who's in the Senate seat now - he's a former attorney general in Alabama. They call him Big Luther because he's 6'9. He was appointed to fill Sessions' seat by a former governor who was embroiled in scandal at the time, so he's had to answer some questions about that. And then there's Congressman Mo Brooks. He's from North Alabama. He's a member of the House Freedom Caucus. And he's drawn a little controversy for saying that Democrats are waging a war on white people.

SMITH: How is President Trump figuring into the race?

ELLIOTT: You know, he's front and center. He's very popular in Alabama, and every one of the candidates are trying to sort of show that they're the ones who's going to have his back. For his part, Trump actually stepped in the race last week. He endorsed Strange in the form of a tweet. I want to play this little bit of an ad for you because, immediately, Luther Strange campaign was on the airwaves, quoting the president's tweet.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: He has my complete and total endorsement.

LUTHER STRANGE: Others attack our president. I'm fighting with him to drain the swamp.

ELLIOTT: There you heard it, Drain the swamp, this idea that Trump and Strange are going to shake things up in Washington. But the irony there is that the GOP establishment is very much behind Luther Strange. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's Senate Leadership Fund is spending millions to get Strange elected, and so is the pro-Trump America First super PAC.

SMITH: What are the big issues in this race?

ELLIOTT: All the candidates are pretty much the same. It's very hard to distinguish them. Everybody lines up on restricting abortion, preserving gun rights, repealing Obamacare - those very conservative issues here in Alabama. So everybody has been focusing on this establishment versus the outsider. And in that narrative, Mitch McConnell has become the villain. Like, there are little cutouts of his head shaking on the TV commercials. Here, let's listen to this latest ad from Judge Roy Moore.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Moore's his man. Moore fears God, stands for the Constitution, fights for what is right and believes what we believe. Drain the swamp. Send McConnell a message.

SMITH: Drain the swamp. There it is again (laughter).

ELLIOTT: All the candidates are using that, even the lesser-known ones. Congressman Mo Brooks, this past week, has been on a drain-the-swamp tour. Now, nobody is likely to get a majority of the vote in this primary on Tuesday, so the GOP race will probably head to a runoff, and then whoever wins the runoff would face a Democratic nominee in December. And just on that side, coming up Tuesday, the lead contender there is former U.S. attorney Doug Jones of Birmingham, and he has picked up an endorsement from the former vice president, Joe Biden.

SMITH: NPR's Debbie Elliott. Thank you, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.