DAVID GREENE, HOST:
So two Republicans with big-name backers are competing in a runoff election today in Alabama. They are vying to be the GOP candidate in the race to fill the U.S. Senate seat once occupied by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. It's a primary contest that has created all kinds of jumbled alliances. On one side there is Luther Strange, who is currently occupying the Senate seat. You can call him the establishment candidate. He's gotten the backing of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as well as President Trump, and also Vice President Pence spoke in Alabama last night at a last-minute rally for Strange.
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VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Luther Strange is a real conservative. He's a leader. He's been a real friend to President Trump. And I got to tell you, Big Luther's been making a big difference in Washington, D.C., and he's just getting started.
GREENE: All right. But not everyone on the Trump train is backing Strange. In fact, his opponent, Roy Moore, has the support of the president's former Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, who campaigned for more in Alabama last night. Despite Trump's support for Strange, Bannon said this.
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STEVE BANNON: A vote for Judge Roy Moore is a vote for Donald J. Trump.
BANNON: And a vote for Donald J. Trump is a vote to make America great again.
GREENE: Now, whoever wins tonight's election will go on to face a Democratic candidate in December. NPR's Geoff Bennett is here to try and (laughter), make sense of this. Geoff, this isn't complicated at all. You have Trump and Bannon on different sides. You have Donald Trump supporting the establishment (laughter) candidate. I mean, I guess start off by telling me who these two guys are running.
GEOFF BENNETT, BYLINE: Well, Luther Strange is the former attorney general in Alabama, and he's earned the nickname Big Luther, as the vice president called him, because he's 6-foot-9.
GREENE: That's tall.
BENNETT: Tall guy. So - and he was appointed to fill Sessions' seat by a former governor who was embroiled in a personal scandal at the time. So Strange has had to answer questions about that. Roy Moore, on the other hand, is an evangelical firebrand. He's a conservative folk hero. He's best known as the Ten Commandments Judge. He's a former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court who was removed twice from that position, one time in 2003 for refusing to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments - he had had it installed in the courthouse - and then again some 13 years later for defying the U.S. Supreme Court directive on same-sex marriages. So Moore and Strange both lay claim to the Trump mantle, but Moore is certainly closer to Trump in terms of style and more naturally aligned to Trump's base.
GREENE: One reason we've seen some of Trump's base supporters in Alabama, you know, see Moore as their candidate. But the president, as we mentioned, is backing Luther Strange. What is at stake for President Trump?
BENNETT: Well, there's a lot at stake for President Trump, mainly because Alabama is Trump country. He won the 2016 election there with more than two-thirds of the vote. And the president has, by all appearances, gone all in for Luther Strange. So if Luther Strange loses, there's no other way to read it really than it being a knock against Trump's political standing and his political power among his perceived base. The problem for the president is that there isn't a single public poll that shows Luther Strange beating Ray Moore for the Republican nomination, and I think that's one reason why Trump seems to be hedging his bets. He said during that Alabama rally over the weekend that he might have made a mistake in backing Strange and even promised to campaign for Roy Moore if Roy Moore wins.
GREENE: That is hedging a bet. Well, if there's a good chance that Strange could lose to Moore, what happens to the Senate leadership and McConnell if Moore becomes a senator?
BENNETT: Well, yeah, Strange is considered the less predictable or less unpredictable, the less risky bet, and he's a safer bet for Republican leaders who don't want or need any more dissent within the ranks. And if Strange loses, the fear is that it could encourage more primary challenges to incumbents and some of the people that Republicans are trying to recruit to run for Democratic-held seats.
GREENE: So how much should we read into the outcome of this election in terms of the larger political climate?
BENNETT: There's always a risk in reading into special elections because there's so many other dynamics at play. But I think if Ray Moore wins, given all that President Trump has - has done to campaign for Luther Strange, I think it could mean that the populist revolt within the GOP, which - which Trump helped fuel could be even beyond that which President Trump can influence and that which he can control.
GREENE: So interesting. NPR's Geoff Bennett. Thanks a lot, Geoff.
BENNETT: You're welcome.
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