MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama is postponing a closely watched Republican primary runoff between former U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions and a formidable rival because of the coronavirus, the governor announced Wednesday.
The Senate runoff between Sessions and former football coach Tommy Tuberville will now be held on July 14 instead of on March 31, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said. The winner of the GOP runoff will face Democratic Sen. Doug Jones in November. The delay also affects primary runoffs for state and local races.
Five other states also have postponed their primaries because of the coronavirus pandemic: Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland and Ohio. In announcing the decision, Ivey noted the White House recommendation that people avoid gatherings of 10 or more people.
“We would be taking a human health risk just by having people stand in line waiting to vote," she said. “I'm also aware that our faithful poll workers are often retired and many among those have the highest risk."
Sessions is seeking to reclaim the Senate seat he held for 20 years before becoming President Donald Trump’s first attorney general. He stepped down from that post when his relationship with Trump soured over his recusal from the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The delay sends the nationally watched Senate race, which had been just two weeks away, into an extended three-month overtime.
“It’s a curveball or something that no one’s really ever seen in electoral politics,” said political consultant David Mowery. A key factor will be if the candidates have the financial resources to run an extended advertising campaign at a time of heavy news consumption, “while you have a captive audience,” Mowery said.
Tuberville led in the initial round of primary voting, taking 33% of the vote to Sessions' 31%. The former football coach then picked up an important endorsement from Trump, something some considered a death knell for the Sessions camp.
The extra time could potentially give Sessions a window to try to blunt Tuberville’s momentum coming off primary night, Mowery said. If the coronavirus crisis continues, the campaigns' abilities to muster voter turnout through absentee ballots will be increasingly important.
Looking to the general election, Jones could get a boost if he appears to be helping to manage the national coronavirus crisis, Mowery added.
“There is no playbook for this. You never learn campaigning in the time of a virus," said Angi Stalnaker, another Alabama-based political consultant who works in Republican politics. “The world you started campaigning in and the world now are two completely different places. People no longer want to hear from a candidate; they want to hear from a leader."
In a statement, Sessions said the “safety and health of Alabamians must take precedence" and challenged Tuberville to debate now that the runoff is months, rather than weeks, away.
“We intend to maintain our vigorous campaign up until the last day, even as we are careful to do so in a manner that puts the health and safety of the public first," Sessions said.
Tuberville said in a statement that he understood Ivey's decision to postpone the runoff and encouraged "all Alabamians to stay safe, be kind to their fellow citizens, and follow all guidelines related to the coronavirus."
Alabama has 51 confirmed case of the new coronavirus, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health, which has cautioned that the number of people carrying the virus is probably higher.
The virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, for most people, but older adults and those with existing health problems can develop severe complications, including pneumonia. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.
The governor, in urging people to maintain social distancing, practiced what she preached at a news conference Wednesday by standing apart from Merrill and Attorney General Steve Marshall. Reporters were directed to sit in chairs spaced about 6 feet (1.8 meters) apart.
“Avoid large gatherings, even family and friends, and if you can, please stay home," Ivey said.
Unlike some states, Alabama does not have early voting or “no excuse” absentee voting. Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill said voters who request an absentee ballot can check the “illness” box if they are concerned about contracting or spreading illness at the polls during the July 14 runoff.
Jones commended Ivey for the decision to delay the runoff, but said the effort to keep folks safe at home should include expanding voting access.
“It’s crucial that we expand access to the ballot box, enact early voting and expand opportunities to vote by mail in Alabama so that all eligible voters are able to participate in our democracy," Jones said.
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