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All Eyes Are On Alabama's Special U.S. Senate Election


NPR's Debbie Elliott has been covering this race from the start, and she joins us now from Brewton, Ala. Debbie, we just heard voters talking about what's important to them. This has been a contentious race. What's your sense of how Alabamians have been responding to all of this focus?

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Well, they're very active out at the polling places. I've been driving around south Alabama this morning. I'm on my way to Montgomery to be with the Moore campaign this evening as the results come in. And just about all the polling places that I've visited with are reporting much busier turnout than they would have expected, the secretary of state thinking they're going to get about a 25 percent turnout for a special election. It might go a little higher than that. Just for context, you know, typically in a governor's race or the last presidential election you're in about the 60 percent turnout rate. So you're still talking a fraction of the voters that are coming out to the polls.

SIEGEL: Debbie, talk about the vision that each of these candidates is putting forward. What has this race been about?

ELLIOTT: Well, you know, the allegations have really dominated the conversation ever since Roy Moore was accused of pursuing teenage girls back in the 1980s when he was a district attorney in Gadsden. But he has tried to shift the focus. He's strongly denied the accusations. He calls it dirty politics. He says this is part of this plot to keep his conservative Christian values out of Washington.

You know, Moore was twice removed from Alabama's chief justice position for defying federal courts, once over a Ten Commandments monument and once over same-sex marriage. So he is very much talking about the same issues that he's been talking about his entire political career. And he also is sort of talking about how the Republican establishment is trying to, you know, keep him out of Washington. They don't want his values in Washington.

On the other hand, the Democrat Doug Jones, who's a former U.S. attorney from Birmingham, he is tapping into that sentiment that we heard from that voter. You know, Alabama is at this crossroads, and it's time for us to move forward. We need somebody who creates a better image than Roy Moore. And he is tapping into that at every chance that he can.

SIEGEL: And what should we be looking for as the returns come in tonight in the Alabama Senate race?

ELLIOTT: Well, again, those voters tell us a lot. You know, older white evangelical voters in rural areas in particular are where Roy Moore has his strength. So we'll be watching those returns. And then Doug Jones has really got to pull the African-American vote in Alabama. And that's about 26 percent of the - of registered voters.

If he can have a high black voter turnout and then pull in some of those disaffected Republicans, some of the Republicans who are frustrated that Roy Moore is the party's nominee, that would be his path to victory. But that's still kind of a tough path in this very reliably Republican state. You know, you have to remember that it was Howell Heflin back in 1992 who was the last Democrat who was elected to the U.S. Senate from Alabama.

SIEGEL: Moore's candidacy has exposed a split between President Trump and Republicans in the Senate. What happens if he wins?

ELLIOTT: That's a very good question. Today, I think Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Moore would be seated after this term. And he has said in the past that once - you know, if Moore were elected, whoever - you know, if he wins, he would face a Senate ethics committee investigation. So that's where it turns next.

SIEGEL: NPR's Debbie Elliott in Brewton, Ala., thanks.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: And stay tuned to NPR throughout the evening and to Morning Edition tomorrow for all the latest on this special election. 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.