By Jim Ellis
Aug. 15, 2017 — Voters go to the polls today in the long-awaited Alabama special US Senate primary, the first tangible step in permanently replacing Attorney General Jeff Sessions. As we know, Sessions resigned his Senate seat early in the year to accept the top law enforcement position in the Trump administration.
Most of the special election campaign action is on the Republican side, as appointed Sen. Luther Strange (R) fights to secure a run-off position.
With the nine GOP candidates clearly attracting enough support to prevent any one of them from capturing a majority and winning the party nomination outright today, moving to a Sept. 26 run-off vote appears certain. Polling suggests that former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore will seize the first run-off position, but with 40 percent or less support. Sen. Strange and Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Huntsville) are fighting for the second qualifying position with the other six candidates lagging behind.
The latest poll from the Trafalgar Group (Aug. 8-10; 1,439 likely Alabama GOP primary voters from more than 50,000 contacts), perhaps the most accurate survey research firm because of their most recent track record, finds Judge Moore capturing 35 percent support, with Sen. Strange far back at 23 percent and Rep. Brooks closing to 20 percent.
Other pollsters, such as the Cygnal research firm in conjunction with the L2 data firm, have conducted several Alabama Senate special election polls. Their latest study (Aug. 8-9; 802 registered Alabama voters; 492 likely GOP primary voters) finds Moore holding a 31-23-18 percent lead over Strange and Brooks, respectively, which is consistent with other data.
Trafalgar’s results are worth greater attention because their pollsters are the only ones who correctly predicted a Donald Trump victory in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin last November as voting began, and also called the GA-6 special election when most other research entities were projecting Democrat Jon Ossoff ahead of the eventual winner, Republican Karen Handel. Therefore, featuring large survey samples and refining the polling universe as a reflective group, the Trafalgar methodology has earned increased credibility.
Trafalgar is different from the others right now in that they find Rep. Brooks brandishing greater strength. Looking at their results trajectory tells us that securing a second place finish for Sen. Strange is probable, but not secure. Obviously, turnout will play the major role in the outcome today, and particularly from the northern part of the state where Brooks will need an extraordinary participation rate from his vote base in order to advance.
The Democrats are also looking toward a run-off. Marketing executive and retired Navy officer Robert Kennedy Jr. and former US Attorney Doug Jones appear well positioned to advance into their own Sept. 26 one-on-one contest.
The nation’s other special primary also occurs tomorrow in eastern Utah, where 3rd Congressional District Republicans will cast their ballots for a nominee to compete in the Nov. 7 special general vote. The eventual winner replaces former Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Alpine/Sandy) who resigned in June. The Democrats nominated Dr. Kathryn Allen in a March convention, so she automatically advances without facing an intra-party election.
The Republican nomination battle is among the GOP convention-endorsed candidate, former state Rep. Chris Herrod, Provo Mayor John Curtis, and marketing executive Tanner Ainge. The latter pair secured ballot placement via the signature petition process. A new Dan Jones & Associates poll (Aug. 2-3; 8; 447 UT-3 registered Republican and “some” Independent voters) finds Mayor Curtis leading, but the results are largely inconclusive and all three candidates appear to have some chance of attaining victory.
Utah features a closed primary system, so only registered Republicans can vote in this election. Most of the counties are requiring mail-only voting and ballots must be post-marked today, so there could be a relatively large number of votes awaiting counting later in the week. This could delay projecting a winner depending upon how closely the candidates are bunched together overlaid against the number of outstanding votes.
According to the Jones’ poll results, Mayor Curtis has a 31-23-15 percent lead over Herrod and Ainge. But when Republicans only are included, the results change to 29-25-16 percent, with the candidates in the same order. When “leaners” are included, the totals change to 49-40-39 percent, again with a Curtis-Herrod-Ainge order of finish. Utah has no run-off system, so the candidate obtaining the most votes tomorrow, regardless of percentage, advances to the general election.
These figures tell us that the primary vote is fluid and provides a relatively inconclusive summary. Though Curtis has the lead in all configurations, it is clear his advantage is tenuous with the momentum moving in the other candidates’ direction.
Fundraising for the three candidates has been low, but outside spending high. The Club for Growth, Freedom Works, and the Senate Conservatives Fund are all spending and bundling for Herrod. A new “Conservative Utah” super PAC is running ads and publishing mail for Ainge with major funding coming from his family. Tanner Ainge is the son of Boston Celtics general manager and former Brigham Young University basketball star Danny Ainge.
Today’s Republican winner will be a heavy favorite against Dr. Allen in the special general election. Hillary Clinton failed to place even second here, thus revealing the strong Republican vote base.