MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The Alabama election for the U.S. Senate seat once held by Jeff Sessions is headed to a crowded primary, the field swelling to 11 Republicans and eight Democrats on Wednesday's last day of qualifying.
The messy GOP primary is the type some Senate powerbrokers had hoped to avoid as appointed Republican Sen. Luther Strange — backed by a super PAC with ties to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — faces numerous challengers from different wings within the GOP.
The race will gauge the preferences of conservative voters in the deeply red state. Sessions vacated the seat when he was appointed the nation's attorney general by President Donald Trump.
U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks— a member of the House Freedom Caucus — and former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who twice lost his position for stances on the Ten Commandments and gay marriage, are among those challenging Strange.
Others in the GOP field include: Christian Coalition president Randy Brinson; Birmingham businessman Dom Gentile; state Sen. Trip Pittman; Bryan Peeples; Mary Maxwell; Joseph F. Breault; James Paul Beretta; and Karen Haiden Jackson.
"It will certainly be expensive. There will be a lot of outside money pouring into the state," said former Alabama Republican Party Chairman Marty Connors.
Strange was appointed to the Senate seat in February by then-Gov. Robert Bentley, who resigned last month amid fallout from an alleged affair with a top staffer. Bentley had planned for a 2018 Senate election, but new Gov. Kay Ivey, moved it up to this year, setting up what's expected to be a summer demolition derby among Alabama's dominant Republicans.
Connors said the key for challengers will be to try to make it into a primary runoff.
Strange, who served previously as Alabama attorney general, is well-known and will have deep pockets for what is likely to be an expensive race.
Ever since a series of messy Republican primaries led to losses of winnable Senate races in 2010 and 2012, Republicans led by McConnell of Kentucky have worked aggressively to defeat fringe primary candidates in Senate races. Their goal has been to ensure that GOP Senate primaries produce mainstream Republican candidates who can go on to win the general election
But Strange is expected to come under attack for his ties to Bentley, who appointed him to the Senate when the state attorney general's office was investigating Bentley. Bentley later resigned under an ethical cloud and pleaded guilty misdemeanor campaign finance violations.
Challengers to Strange have largely tried to position themselves as outsider candidates while accusing Strange of being tied to the Washington establishment.
Eight Democrats are seeking the seat, including former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones. The other candidates are: Will Boyd; Vann Caldwell; Jason Fisher; Michael Hansen; Robert Kennedy, Jr.; Brian McGee; and Nana Tchienkou. It has been two decades since a Democrat represented Alabama in the U.S. Senate.
The primary will be Aug. 15.