HEFLIN, Ala. (AP) — Wearing an NRA baseball cap and newly armed with an endorsement from President Donald Trump, Alabama Sen. Luther Strange on Saturday strolled by the sausage vendors and rodeo ticket booths at a rural county fair, rallying voters ahead of Tuesday's critical Republican primary for Attorney General Jeff Sessions' former Senate seat.
"The day will turn on turnout. That's why the President's endorsement is so critical," Strange said between handshakes. Strange said he thought Trump's support would make "the difference" in the race. "That's what I told the President," Strange said. However, Strange declined to say if he thought he could win without a runoff, citing turnout.
Despite both the endorsement of Trump via a Tuesday tweet backing of millions of dollars in advertising by a super political action committee tied to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Strange has found himself in what could be a tight Republican primary race with firebrand challengers. Those rivals include Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore — who was twice removed from office over stances for the public display of the Ten Commandments and against gay marriage — and U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus who is backed by tea party voters in the state.
The Alabama race for Sessions' former seat has devolved into a high-dollar GOP civil war. McConnell's allies have made a heavy investment to keep Strange in the seat, while the challengers hope to ride an anti-Washington backlash to victory. The race will go to a September runoff between the top two finishers if no candidate gets over 50 percent of the vote on Tuesday. The winning Democrat and Republican will face off in December.
At the Cleburne County Fair, where country and Christian music blared from loudspeakers, several voters said they were still thinking — and, in some cases, praying — about how to vote.
Cleburne Probate Judge Ryan Robertson said he has great respect for Strange, but also appreciated that Moore "took a stand" on gay marriage. Moore was permanently suspended from his chief justice duties in 2016 after telling probate judges that they did not need to issue marriage licenses to gay couples because of a state court order. Cleburne is one of eight counties that stopped issuing marriage licenses, so county officials did not have to give them to same-sex couples.
"He stuck his neck out," Robertson said of Moore.
Moore and Brooks have both criticized Strange as the establishment candidate, saying Alabama voters won't get the change they want with a McConnell-backed candidate.
"People voted for change and they are not getting it. They are not getting anything out of Washington," Moore told The Associated Press by telephone.
Brooks spent the last two-weeks crisscrossing the state on a bus nicknamed the "Drain the Swamp Express" that also had a "Ditch Mitch" sign secured to it.
"This is a very, very important Senate race. We're going to be a bellwether for the 2018 races," Brooks said at a midweek stop in Montgomery.
Other Republicans in the race include Sen. Trip Pittman, who has run television ads and materials touting his status as the only businessman in the race, and Christian Coalition leader Randy Brinson.
The rollicking primary began with Strange's appointment in February by then-Gov. Robert Bentley, who later resigned in the cloud of a scandal. Challengers have taken swipes at Strange for seeking an appointment from the governor when Strange, as attorney general, was in charge of an investigation.
Strange has countered that he did Bentley no favors.
The Democratic side of Tuesday's election has not been the messy political food fight of the GOP race.
Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney under the Clinton administration, is perhaps the best-known statewide of the seven Democrats vying for the nomination. He faces Michael Hansen, the head of an environmental organization, and Robert Kennedy, Jr., a U.S. Naval Academy graduate who is unrelated to the famed Massachusetts political dynasty.
Adding to the uncertainty, the late summer election is expected to draw low turnout. With no other races on the ballot to help bring voters to the polls, candidates have nervously upped their ground game to get supporters to the polls.
Brooks spent Saturday campaigning in south Alabama. Moore will speak at several churches on Sunday.
"This state is poised to be the first to make a statement in this battle that's going on in Washington," Moore told The Associated Press.