Voting 8-15-17

A slow stream of voters come and go out of the Saks High School gym during the special election for the US Senate seat in Alabama. (Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star)

Former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore and sitting U.S. Sen Luther Strange are headed for a runoff for the Republican nomination for Alabama’s U.S. Senate seat.

With 62 of 67 counties reporting at 10 p.m., Moore held 43 percent of the vote to Strange’s 32 percent making them the top vote-getters in Tuesday’s special primary election, the first step in filling the seat vacated by Jeff Sessions when he was appointed U.S. attorney general.

The winner of the runoff will likely face former federal prosecutor Doug Jones in the general election. Jones held 62 percent of the Democratic  at 10 p.m. Tuesday, enough to avoid a runoff.

“The attempt by the silk-stocking Washington elitists to control the vote of the people of Alabama has failed,” Moore said in a televised speech Tuesday night.

Also in televised remarks, Strange thanked President Donald Trump for endorsing him in the race.

“He knows that I am the person in this race who is going to help him make this country great again,” Strange said.

Jones, in a televised victory speech, stressed core Democratic issues including health care access, equal pay for women and unity after the white supremacist violence in Virginia over the weekend.

“I’m going to be an independent voice,” Jones said. “I’m not going to be beholden to president or a political party.”

Tuesday’s vote was a milestone in a political season that seems to have attracted more attention outside Alabama than within the state. Pundits across the country have closely watched the race, one of the few congressional contests in this odd-numbered year, to see what signs it holds for 2018.

The GOP contest, which attracted 10 candidates, ultimately winnowed itself down to a three-man fight.

Moore, who was kicked off the Alabama Supreme Court last year for fighting the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, came to the race with strong evangelical backing — and a history of struggling to appeal to voters outside that base.

Strange, a former state attorney general, walked into Election Day with repeated endorsements from President Donald Trump – but also had to fight the stigma he picked up from another ally. Strange was appointed to temporarily fill the Senate seat by former Gov. Robert Bentley, who resigned earlier this year amid a sex scandal.

The third man in the fight, U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, is well known as a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, but struggled to recover Republicans’ faith after primary opponents hammered on his criticisms of Trump in 2016.

All three ran ads that tried to position each man as a close ally to Trump. Those ads caught the attention of the national media, but they didn’t seem to move voters to the polls. Secretary of State John Merrill predicted 20 to 25 percent turnout before Tuesday; late Tuesday afternoon he revised that prediction to 10 to 15 percent.

“People vote because they decide something in an election is important to them,” Merrill said. “Apparently people are not as enthusiastic about this election as we thought.”

Turnout for primaries in non-election years is typically low, as is turnout in elections with only one race at stake. Lori Owens, a political science professor at Jacksonville State University, said the odd timing of the election didn’t help bring voters out, nor did the “cloudy perceptions” of the differences between the frontrunners.

“I’m not sure how much the voters want to spend time trying to figure out the dynamics of the race,” Owens said.

Low turnout may have been a boon to Moore, who has long been perceived as a candidate with a highly committed core of supporters.

“I want him to be honored, because he was dishonored when they removed him from the court,” said Moore voter Doris Greenwood, who cast her ballot at God’s Covenant Ministry in Anniston just after noon. By midday, the polling place had seen only 42 voters.

“I voted for Roy Moore because I don’t know a lot about the other candidates, but I know him, and we agree on a lot of things,” said Sam Phillips, who voted at Saks High School after getting off work at General Dynamics.

Many voters said they woke up this morning not even realizing Election Day had arrived.

“I went out to my sister-in-law’s house and she said, ‘Have you voted?’ So I came on down,” said Curtis Lloyd, another Saks High voter. Lloyd said he’d already picked out a Republican candidate – he declined to name which one – but hadn’t heard the vote was Tuesday.

At Anniston City Meeting Center, typically a heavily Democratic polling place, 23 people had voted by 1 p.m. Voter No. 23, Wytonia Walker, said she always makes an effort to exercise her right to vote, though the odd August voting date almost threw her off.

“I didn’t know it was coming up so soon,” Walker said. Walker said she voted for a Democrat, but declined to say which one.

Walker said many people are on vacation now, and she predicted that many others will wait until the general election to cast a vote.

Owens, the political science professor, said the general election in December isn’t likely to generate more turnout.

“That turnout will be horrible,” Owens said. “It’s just before the holidays.”

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.