MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore and GOP opponent Luther Strange, who President Trump endorsed, have won spots in a runoff election for the U.S. Senate seat formerly held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Moore led a packed Republican field in the primary held Tuesday grabbing 40% of ballots cast with about 70% of the vote counted. Strange was next in line with 32%.
Democrat Doug Jones earned a spot in the December general election clinching 63% in the open primary, according to the Alabama Secretary of State's Office.
Fewer than 1 in 7 and perhaps as little as 1 in 10 registered voters had been expected to cast their ballots Tuesday in the primary to determine who would vie in December for Sessions' old Senate seat.
After a morning of lackluster turnout at the state's polling places, the Secretary of State's Office revised its predictions downward from original estimates of 1 in 4 or 1 in 5 voters at the polls.
“Apparently, this is a case where people are not enthusiastic about the candidates,” Secretary of State John Merrill said.
Alabama doesn't register voters by party, so voters could choose either primary.
If none of the Republican candidates wins a majority in the primary, state law sends the top two vote-getters to a primary runoff Sept. 26. And political analysts considered that highly likely in the GOP race; the special election for the Senate seat is Dec. 12.
“We’re just kind of tired of the political machine,” Carol Wright of Montgomery said about her and her husband's choice of former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore. “There’s way too much good ol' boy stuff going on in Washington. We need to drain the swamp.”
Moore was elected to the Alabama Supreme Court in 2001, removed in 2003, re-elected in 2013, suspended in 2016 and resigned in April to run for Senate. He first generated controversy by commissioning a Ten Commandments monument for the Alabama Judicial Building; his second upbraiding occurred because he directed the state's probate judges to continue to enforce Alabama's ban on same-sex marriage after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage.
In a surprise move a week ago, President Trump endorsed Strange, a Republican whom then-Gov. Robert Bentley appointed to the Senate when Sessions joined the Trump administration.
Strange trailed Moore in most public polls: The latest from the Montgomery-based Cygnal polling firm, and L2 voter data had Moore with the approval of 31% of voters surveyed; Strange with 23%; and Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., with 18%. But that was Aug. 8 and 9 before Trump recorded a phone message for Strange.
"I'm not really a big fan for any of the candidates that were running today. But since President Trump officially endorsed Luther Strange and Luther Strange has publicly said he would back Trump's agenda, that's the reason I voted for Luther Strange," Walt Haywood said after walking out of the Doster Memorial Community Center in Prattville, Ala., about 10 miles northwest of Montgomery.
James Pollock, a retiree who lives in Montgomery, said Trump’s endorsement and that of the National Rifle Association helped him vote for Strange.
“Trump likes Strange for some reason,” he said. “I voted for Trump. I didn’t want to upset the apple cart.”
Moore’s supporters said they thought he was the most honest candidate in the race or the one who aligned with their religious beliefs.
"Christian values are very important to me," Roger Carter of Prattville said. "But he's also conservative in some of the ways that our president is, and that means a lot to me."
Democrats who came out to vote were critical of Donald Trump and recent corruption scandals that engulfed Alabama. Health care was also on many people's minds.
Zelda Kitt, an educator from the college town of Auburn, Ala., about 50 miles from Montgomery, voted for former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones. She said she liked his views on Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act.
“I do hope Democrats have a chance to make a splash,” said Kelly Kennington, a history professor at Auburn University who voted for environmentalist and progressive candidate Michael Hansen. “I’m not naïve. I don’t necessarily think they’ll win (the general election). But I hope so.”