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What's At Stake With Alabama's Special Election?


Alabama voters are choosing their next U.S. senator today. Republican Roy Moore, the former chief justice of the state's Supreme Court, is vying for Attorney General Jeff Sessions' old Senate seat against Democrat and former prosecutor Doug Jones. Moore has been accused by multiple women of pursuing them sexually when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s. Those are allegations that he denies. Here's Moore at his closing rally last night in Alabama.


ROY MOORE: If you don't believe in my character, don't vote for me.

SIEGEL: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now to talk about this race and its national implications. And Mara, what are you watching for tonight?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, I'm watching for the obvious thing - turnout. I'd watch what's called the black belt of Alabama - those counties that have big African-American populations. Jones needs African-Americans to be about 25 percent of the electorate. He also needs about 30 percent of the white vote, which a Democrat hasn't gotten in Alabama in a generation. Barack Obama only got 15 percent of the white vote in 2012.

And Jones needs Republican votes - Republican women, Chamber of Commerce Republicans, business Republicans who are worried about what Roy Moore does to the image of the state. And he doesn't just need Republicans who are embarrassed by Moore to stay home or to write in another candidate. He needs them to cross over, and that means the math is still very difficult for a Democrat in Alabama.

SIEGEL: Mara, it's one Senate seat. And it's a special election. What are the stakes here in this race?

LIASSON: I think the stakes are much higher for Republicans than Democrats. For Democrats, it's almost tails, I win - heads, you lose because if Moore wins, Republicans have to deal with him in the Senate. Are they going to expel him, investigate him? Are they going to embrace him? There's a big split among Republican senators about that.

If Jones wins, then the Republicans' majority in the Senate gets much slimmer. And of course a Democratic win in the very red state of Alabama would be a shockwave, kind of bigger even than when Republican Scott Brown won the - Ted Kennedy's seat in a special election in Massachusetts back in 2009.

SIEGEL: And what about President Trump?

LIASSON: Well, he's been ambivalent about Moore for a while, but then he ended up going all-in. I think if Moore wins, it's a big, big win for Trump. And a loss would be huge, too.

SIEGEL: Now, speaking of President Trump, he is engaged in another Twitter fight, this time with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, the New York Democrat. What happened there?

LIASSON: Gillibrand called yesterday on Trump to resign amid accusations of sexual misconduct against the president that had surfaced during the campaign. But now they've resurfaced because of this moment that we're having about sexual harassment. So as is the president's M.O., he counterpunched, hitting back hard on Twitter.

He tweeted this morning, calling Senator Gillibrand a lightweight who had come into his office not so long ago begging for campaign contributions and, quote, "would do anything for them." Gillibrand shot back saying that was a sexist smear. Then Sarah Sanders, the press secretary, said that wasn't in any way sexist or sexual. Your mind has to be in the gutter to interpret it that way. Here's what Sanders had to say.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: The president is very obvious. This is the same sentiment that the president has expressed many times before when he has exposed the corruption of the entire political system. In fact he's used similar terminology many times when talking about politicians of both parties, both men and women.

LIASSON: So as usual, Trump's default mode is to be in combat, to be fighting, to be defending his political legitimacy from all of his enemies, trying to demean his opponents. But Trump's counterattacks have the side effect of elevating his opponents.

Nobody knew who LaVar Ball was until Trump attacked him. And now Gillibrand, who's widely considered to be planning a run for president in 2020, has been elevated. And this also guarantees that there will be continued attention to the charges made by his accusers.

SIEGEL: NPR's Mara Liasson at the White House - Mara, thanks.

LIASSON: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And for the results of the Alabama race and full analysis, keep listening to NPR throughout the evening and tomorrow starting with Morning Edition. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.