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Decision 2020: 14 Southern U.S. Senate seats on November ballot, with 4 possible flips

Races in North Carolina, Alabama on national radar; Lindsey Graham faces stiff challenge in South Carolina

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

Fourteen Southern U.S. Senate seats will be on the ballot in November, putting half of the South’s seats in play with control of the chamber very much up for grabs.

Of these seats, one presents a likely pickup opportunity for Republicans, while three Republican incumbents are facing stiff challenges. Three other seats are somewhat competitive but with incumbents still favored, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell‘s race in Kentucky.

Five senators — four Republicans and one Democrat — are cruising toward re-election, with Republicans also likely to keep an open seat in Tennessee. A special election in Georgia with candidates from both parties running in the same race is a wild card that will be difficult to predict — and could potentially decide which part controls the Senate when the dust clears.

Here is your guide to the 2020 Southern Senate races.

Possible Flips

1. Alabama: U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D) vs. Tommy Tuberville (R)

Jones has had a target on his back since he won a special election in 2017 over Republican Roy Moore, whose candidacy imploded in a sex scandal. Jones was the first Democrat elected to a Senate seat in the Yellowhammer State since 1992; his vote to convict President Donald Trump in his impeachment trial has put his continued tenure in jeopardy. Tuberville, the former head football coach at Auburn University, is making his political debut, impressively taking out a field of prominent Republicans in the primary, including Jeff Sessions, who held this seat for 20 years before leaving to join the Trump administration. If Jones somehow manages to hang on, it will be perhaps the biggest surprise on election night.

2. North Carolina: U.S. Senator Thom Tillis (R) vs.  Cal Cunningham (D)

Cunningham, an attorney who served a single term in the legislature 20 years ago and made an unsuccessful Senate bid in 2010, was recruited by Democratic leaders in Washington to run against Tillis, who is seeking a second term after ousting former Democratic Senator Kay Hagin in 2014. This seat was once held by Jesse Helms, and no one has managed to win a second term since he gave it up in 2002. Cunningham has raised $15 million, slightly more than Tillis, and has led consistently in polls. The outcome of the presidential race in this battleground state may be key here. If Donald Trump wins, Tillis is likely to keep his seat as well; if he doesn’t, Cunningham will be in the driver’s seat.

3. South Carolina: U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R) vs. Jaime Harrison (D)

Over the past four years, Graham has become one of Trump’s biggest cheerleaders, after spending much of the 2016 campaign trashing him. That about-face spared him from the kind of primary challenge he had to beat back in 2014, but Harrison, a former state Democratic party chair, is hoping Graham’s association with the president will turn off enough Palmetto State voters to put him over the top. Harrison has raised a staggering $30 million — an unheard of sum for a Democrat in South Carolina — to stay even with the incumbent in the money chase. While polling shows the race is competitive, Trump is expected to carry the state, and the universe of Trump-Harrison voters may be too small to flip this seat.

4. Georgia: U.S Senator David Perdue (R) vs. Jon Ossoff (D)

It’s been a long time since Georgia has been competitive in a presidential or senatorial contest, but polling has shown Ossoff within striking distance of Perdue, who is seeking a second term. Ossoff built a national profile by raising more than $30 million for a special U.S. House election in 2017 that he narrowly lost. He hasn’t raised anywhere near that kind of money this time around, and Perdue enjoys a 2-to-1 fundraising advantage. Democrats insist that the Peach State’s changing demographics and an influx of newly energized, newly registered Democratic voters will lead to victory for Ossoff and Democratic nominee Joe Biden; Republicans scoff at such a scenario as delusional. If Biden makes a serious play for Georgia, it could help Ossoff; if Biden wins, Perdue will need to run ahead of Trump to survive.

Less Competitive

1. Texas: U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R) vs. MJ Hegar (D)

Democrats had high hopes for flipping this seat, particularly after Beto O’Rourke nearly took out Ted Cruz in 2018. But O’Rourke passed on the Senate race to make a quixotic bid for president, and Hegar, a former military chopper pilot and Afghan war veteran who lost a House race in 2018, had to spend time and money fighting her way through a primary runoff. Cornyn entered the fall campaign with the benefit of incumbency and a huge financial advantage, in a state that hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1988. This could turn out to be a might-have-been race for Democrats — what might have been if O’Rouke had run instead.

2. Kentucky: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) vs. Amy McGrath (D)

Democratic leaders recruited McGrath for this race, enthused by her prodigious fundraising during an unsuccessful House race in 2018. But running against McConnell in Kentucky is a tall order, and she has not always seemed up to the task. Her campaign had an unsteady launch when she flipped positions on confirming Brett Kavanaugh, and she very nearly lost the Democratic primary after mishandling her response to racial justice protests that have roiled Louisville. After an uneven campaign, she decided change campaign managers in August, which is never a good sign. There’s a reason Mitch McConnell has been a senator since 1985 — he is perhaps the wiliest politician of his generation. His tenure in Washington seems likely to endure.

3. Mississippi: U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) vs. former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy (D)

This race is a rematch of 2018, when Hyde-Smith beat Espy by 8 points in a special election runoff, running nearly 10 points behind what Trump did in 2016. Espy was encouraged enough by his showing to try to take her down again, hoping that the energy unleashed by social justice protests will galvanize black voters, who make up 37percent of the state’s electorate, the highest percentage in the country. However, if he couldn’t beat Hyde-Smith in a lower turnout midterm election, beating her with the presidential election on the ballot, in a very pro-Trump state, is likely to be a tall order.

Wild Card

Georgia: U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler (R) vs. U.S. Rep. Doug Collins (R), Raphael Warnock (D) and Matt Lieberman (D)

In this special election to fill the seat vacated by Johnny Isakson, candidates from all parties run in the same race, with the top two vote-getters advancing to a December runoff. Loeffler is trying to keep this seat after being appointed to the post by Gov. Brian Kemp, who opted to pick the political newcomer instead of Collins, one of Trump’s biggest champions in the House. Collins defied the governor to run against Loeffler, splitting Peach State Republicans into two camps.

On the Democratic side, Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, has drawn support from the party establishment who see him as the best option to win the seat. But Lieberman, the son of former Connecticut U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman, has resisted pressure to leave the race in favor of Warnock, and polls have shown him remaining competitive. If Warnock and Lieberman split the Democratic vote, it could clear the way for both Loeffler and Collins to meet in an all-GOP second round. If one Republican and one Democrat get through, the outcome of the race is likely to depend on who those two candidates are.

Shoo-Ins

Arkansas: U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (R) faces no Democratic competition after the lone Democrat who qualified abruptly left the race. The only person standing between Cotton and re-election is Libertarian Ricky Harrington.

Tennessee: Republican Bill Hagerty, the former U.S. ambassador to Japan, has a much easier path to Washington after the Democrat recruited and financed by party leaders to challenge for the seat lost his primary. He will now face Marquita Bradshaw, an environmental activist from Memphis who harnessed grassroots support to win the primary.

West Virginia: U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R) is not expected to have much trouble against Democrat Paula Jean Swearengin, an environmental activist who gained national exposure when her 2018 race against the state’s other U.S. senator, Joe Manchin, was featured in the Netflix documentary “Knock Down The House.”

Oklahoma: If U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe (R), as expected, wins a fifth full term over Democrat Abby Broyles, he will be 92 when this term ends in 2026. Broyles, a former TV reporter in Oklahoma City, has run a spirited campaign in which she’s needled the senator for refusing to debate her.

Virginia: Giving the Old Dominion’s increasingly Democratic tilt, U.S. Senator Mark Warner (D) is a clear favorite over Republican Daniel Gade, a former Army officer who was wounded in Iraq and now teaches at American University in Washington.

Louisiana: U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy (R) is competing in a jungle primary in November and will face a runoff in December if he doesn’t clear 50%. He avoided any major Republican opposition; the biggest Democratic name in the race is Shreveport Mayor Adrian Perkins.

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Donald Trump gets his revenge as Jeff Sessions goes down to defeat

Sessions crushed by Tommy Tuberville in Alabama U.S. Senate GOP runoff

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

MONTGOMERY (CFP) — Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions was crushed Tuesday in his quest to reclaim the U.S. Senate seat he gave up to serve in Donald Trump’s Cabinet, in a sweeping triumph for the president and his Twitter feed.

Tommy Tuberville, the former head football coach at Auburn University who was making his first run for elective office, took 61% to 39% for Sessions, carrying 64 of the state’s 67 counties.

“Thank you for your trust, your confidence. Your message of change is loud and clear,” Tuberville told supporters at a victory party in Montgomery, where he went directly after his November opponent, Democratic U.S. Senator Doug Jones.

Republican Alabama U.S. Senate nominee Tommy Tuberville addresses supporters in Montgomery (WVTM via YouTube)

“In Doug Jones’ Alabama, you take your marching orders from Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and the bartender AOC,” Tuberville said, referring to New York U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“Doug Jones’ Alabama is not the conservative state we love and embrace and defend. It’s a liberal fantasy,” he said.

Jones won a special election in 2017 in deep red Alabama after the Republican nominee, Roy Moore, imploded in a sex scandal. He is considered the most endangered Democratic incumbent in the country this year.

Jones issued a statement after Tuberville’s win saying Alabama voters will have a choice in November between “an unprepared hyper partisan that will add to the divide in Washington, or my proven track-record to find common ground and get things done.”

Tuesday’s result was an ignominious defeat for Sessions, who represented Alabama in the Senate for 20 years and built a political brand so potent that Democrats didn’t even both to contest his election the last time he ran in 2014.

But this time around, he could not overcome the implacable opposition of Trump, who has never forgiven Sessions for recusing himself from the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Trump endorsed Tuberville, made robocalls on his behalf, and used his Twitter feed to needle Sessions throughout the campaign. But Sessions continued to insist that he fully supported the president and his agenda.

“The people of Alabama have spoken, and they want a new leader, a new fresh face to go to Washington,” Sessions said at an election night event in Mobile where he was surrounded by eight of his grandchildren. “We felt like we were beginning to make some progress here at the very end, but it wasn’t enough.”

Sessions said he had “no regrets” about the decision to recuse himself, insisting that legally, he had no other choice.

“I was honored to serve the people of Alabama in the Senate, and I was extraordinarily proud of the accomplishments we had as attorney general,” he said. “I leave elective office with my integrity intact.”

Trump took to Twitter to congratulate Tuberville on the result, refraining from any direct attack on Sessions, although he dismissed Jones as “a terrible Senator who is just a Super Liberal puppet for Schumer & Pelosi.”

Alabama Republicans also decided competitive runoffs for two open U.S. House seats Tuesday.

In the 1st District (Mobile and southwest Alabama), Mobile County Commissioner Jerry Carl edged out former State Senator Bill Hightower for the Republican nomination. On the Democratic side of the ballot, James Averhart, a retired Marine who runs a non-profit that works to reintegrate former prisoners into society, won the Democratic nomiination over Kiani Gardner.

Carl will be the favorite in November in the heavily Republican district. U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne gave up the seat to make a losing U.S. Senate bid against Sessions and Tuberville.

In the 2nd District (Montgomery and southeast Alabama), former State Rep. Barry Moore defeated businessman Jeff Coleman and will be a heavy favorite in the fall against Democrat Phyllis Harvey-Hall. The seat opened up with the retirement of Republican U.S. Rep. Martha Roby.

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U.S. Senate runoffs top Tuesday’s primary ballots in Alabama, Texas

Jeff Sessions tries to survive Trump headwinds in Alabama, while Texas Democrats pick a foe for U.S. Senator John Cornyn

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

(CFP) — Voters in Alabama and Texas go to the polls Tuesday to decide two hotly contested U.S. Senate runoffs, including a Republican runoff in Alabama where former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is trying to reclaim his old Senate seat over the fervent opposition of President Donald Trump.

Trump also features in a U.S. House runoff in Texas, where former White House doctor Ronny Jackson — whom the president tried and failed to install as Veterans’ Affairs secretary in 2018 — is competing in a Republican runoff in the Panhandle, with the president’s endorsement.

Also in Texas, Democratic State Senator Royce West from Dallas is competing with former Air Force combat pilot MJ Hegar for the right to take on incumbent Republican U.S. Senator John Cornyn for a seat that Democrats hope to flip in November.

Former Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, who rose to the Republican leadership during two decades in Congress before losing his Dallas-area seat in 2018, is also trying to make a comeback in a runoff in a different Waco-area district.

Polls are open in both states from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. local time.

Jeff Sessions and Tommy Tuberville

Tuesday’s marquee race is in Alabama, where sessions is competing with former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville for the right to take on Democratic U.S. Senator Doug Jones, considered the nation’s most endangered incumbent senator as he seeks re-election in deep red Alabama.

In 2017, Sessions gave up the Senate seat he had held for 20 years to become Trump’s attorney general, only to see that relationship sour after Sessions recused himself from the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Trump fired Sessions in 2018 and has continued to take shots at him, even though Sessions had continued to insist that he fully supports the president and his agenda.

With Trump’s endorsement, Tuberville is considered the favorite in the race, although Sessions may have reclaimed some ground in the closing weeks of the runoff amid headlines about Tuberville’s ties to a hedge fund fraud scheme.

Tuesday’s ballot also features two Republican runoffs for safe U.S. House seats in Alabama, as well runoffs in 11 districts in Texas, including five that Democrats hope to flip.

Those races include:

Alabama 1st District (Mobile and southwest Alabama): In the race to replace Republican U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, who gave up the seat to make a losing U.S. Senate bid, the Republican runoff features Mobile County Commissioner Jerry Carl and former State Senator Bill Hightower. On the Democratic side of the ballot, James Averhart faces Kiani Gardner. The Republican nominee will be heavily favored in November.

Alabama 2nd District (Montgomery and southeast Alabama): In the race to replace retiring Republican U.S. Rep. Martha Roby, businessman Jeff Coleman faces former State Rep. Barry Moore. The winner will be a heavy favorite in the fall against Democrat Phyllis Harvey-Hall.

Texas 10th District (East Texas between Austin and Houston): Democrats Pritesh Gandhi and Mike Siegel are competing in Democratic runoff for the right to face incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul in a race that Democrats have targeted as a pickup opportunity.

Texas 13th District (Panhandle and part of North Texas): Both parties are holding runoffs in this district, where incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry is retiring. Among Republicans, Jackson faces Josh Winegarner, a former congressional aide. Among Democrats, Greg Sagan will face Gus Trujillo. The Republican runoff winner will be heavily favored in the fall.

Texas 17th District (Waco and parts of Central Texas): Both parties are also holding runoffs in this district, where incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Flores is retiring. Among Republicans, Sessions is facing businesswoman Renee Swann. Among Democrats, David Jaramillo will face Rick Kennedy. The Republican winner will be favored in the fall.

Texas 22nd District (Southern Houston suburbs): In the race to replace retiring Republican U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, Republicans will choose between Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls and businesswoman Kathaleen Wall. The winner will face Democrat Sri Preston Kulkarni in a race that Democrats have targeted as a pickup opportunity.

Texas 23rd District (West Texas between San Antonio and El Paso): In a race to replace retiring Republican U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, Iraq War veteran Tony Gonzales will face Raul Reyes, a builder and retired Air Force officer, in the Republican runoff. The winner will face Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones, who nearly defeated Hurd in 2018.

Texas 24th District (Metro Dallas-Ft. Worth): Democrats Kim Olson, a retired Air Force colonel and former Weatherford school board member, will face Candace Valenzuela, who serves on the school board in Carrollton-Farmers Branch.  The winner will face the Republican nominee, former Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne, for the race to succeed incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Kenny Marchant in a race Democrats have targeted.

Texas 31st District (Northern Austin suburbs): In the Democratic runoff, Donna Imam, an Austin computer engineer, will face Christine Mann, a physician from Williamson County who lost the party’s runoff in this district in 2018. The winner will face incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. John Carter, who is also on the Democrats’ target list.

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Jeff Sessions’s plea to Alabama: I really, really love Donald Trump. Really.

Sessions pens open letter touting his pro-Trump bona fides as he battles for his political life in GOP U.S. Senate primary runoff

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

MONTGOMERY (CFP) — Facing political headwinds blowing from President Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, U.S. Senate candidate Jeff Sessions has taken the extraordinary step of sending open letter to his fellow Alabamians in which he expresses undying fealty to the man who has repeatedly, publicly belittled him.

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions

“I have remained faithful to the President and his agenda. I have always stood up for him, and I never backed down, not even for one moment. My convictions are immovable, built on rock, not sand,” Sessions said in the letter released May 12.

“I believe President Trump is a great President who is steadily making progress for America, despite relentless opposition. My support for his agenda is not about me, or even about him. It’s about doing the right thing for the country I so love.”

Insisting that there is no daylight between him and Trump, Sessions said “the people of Alabama do not have to choose between voting for the President and voting for me, they can do both.”

Read full text of Session’s open letter.

However, Sessions also defended the decision he made that has drawn Trump’s unending ire — recusing himself as U.S. attorney general from the investigation into allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election after his own meeting with Russia’s ambassador in Washington became public.

“I did what the law required me to do,” Sessions said. “I was a central figure in the campaign and was also a subject of and witness in the investigation and could obviously not legally be involved in investigating myself.”

“If I had ignored and broken the law, the Democrats would have used that to severely damage the President.”

But as he tries to reclaim the goodwill of Trump’s most fervent partisans, Sessions also dismissed the investigation as “a disruptive and prolonged fiasco for America and especially for President Trump, and a massive waste of money chasing the deep state myth of Russian collusion.”

He also said that from the beginning of the administration, he had urged Trump to fire the man who launched the Russia investigation, former FBI Director James Comey.

“I concluded that Comey was driven by ego, lacked self-discipline, and lacked the judgement necessary to lead an agency as critical as the FBI,” he said.

Sessions’s letter is the latest chapter in his quest to regain the Senate seat he gave up in 2017 to become attorney general — a seat he had held for 20 years and likely could have kept for life had he not agreed to join the Trump administration.

Trump was publicly critical of Sessions during his time attorney general and has continued to needle him since firing Sessions in 2018, including in an interview just days before Session’s open letter in which he said Sessions had “begged” to be attorney general and was “a very average guy” and a “total disaster.”

The president has endorsed Session’s opponent in the July 14 GOP primary runoff, former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville — an endorsement that has left Sessions fighting for his political life in a state where the president remains popular.

In his letter, Sessions noted that in 2016, he the first member of Congress to endorse Trump, at a time when “many thought I was nuts to do so.”

“I helped Trump win and traveled the country with him, embedded in his campaign. I am one of the architects of his agenda, and I was pushing his agenda even before he ran for office,” he said.

Sessions also noted that after Trump fired him, “I did not say a cross word about him, as I thought that would be dishonorable.”

He also said that while Alabamians “enthusiastically” support Trump, “we also make our own decisions on who to send to the U.S. Senate.”

“Alabamians have long resisted pressure from people in Washington telling them how to vote,” Sessions said.

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U.S. Senate: Sessions, Tuberville advance to Alabama runoff, with Trump front and center

Texas Democrat MJ Hegar makes runoff; Cal Cunningham wins Democratic nod in North Carolina

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

BIRMINGHAM (CFP) — Former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville topped the field in Alabama’s Republican U.S. Senate primary, setting up an March 31 runoff with the man who gave up the seat in 2017 to serve as President Donald Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions.

And Trump, who opted not to endorse anyone in the first round of voting, was quick to demonstrate that he still carries a grudge against Sessions with a post-primary tweet attributing his second-place showing to a lack of loyalty: “This is what happens to someone who loyally gets appointed Attorney General of the United States & then doesn’t have the wisdom or courage to stare down & end the phony Russia Witch Hunt.

Meanwhile in Texas, Democrats will decide a May 26 U.S. Senate runoff between the pick of the Democratic Senate establishment, MJ Hegar, and State Senator Royce West from Dallas. The winner of the runoff will take on Republican U.S. Senator John Cornyn in November.

And in North Carolina, Cal Cunningham, a Raleigh attorney and former state senator, easily won the Democratic nomination to take on Republican U.S. Senator Thom Tillis, turning back a challenger who had been aided with more than $2 million in ads from a Republican-affiliated PAC.

Sessions and Tuberville declare victory (From WSFA, Fox 10)

In Alabama, where Republicans have high hopes of defeating Democratic U.S. Senator Doug Jones in November, Tuberville — making his first run for political office — won 33 percent to 31 percent for Sessions. U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, who gave up his House seat to make the Senate race, finished third at 26 percent.

Roy Moore, the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court who lost to Jones in a special election in 2017 amid allegations of inappropriate sexual contact with underage girls, won just 7 percent. Moore has denied the allegations.

In their election night speeches, both Sessions and Tuberville made it clear that fealty to Trump will be front and center in the runoff race.

Referring to Tuberville as a “tourist from Florida,” Sessions noted that he was the first member of Congress to endorse Trump in 2016 and accused Tuberville of being a johnny-come-lately to the Trump cause.

“Where was [Tuberville] when President Trump needed him? What did he do for Trump? Never said a kind word about him that I can find. Never gave a single penny of his millions to the Trump campaign,” Sessions said.

But Tuberville pointed to Sessions’s abrupt departure from the Trump administration after the president repeatedly criticized him for recusing himself during the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign.

“We’re going to finish what President Trump started when he looked at Jeff Sessions from across the table and said, ‘You’re fired,'” Tuberville said. “Only one candidate in this race will support Donald Trump down the line. Doug won’t, Jeff didn’t, but Tommy will.”

In Texas, where the Democratic primary drew 12 candidates, Hegar, 43, a retired Air Force combat pilot who had the backing of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, took 23 percent to lead the field, with Royce at 15 percent.

West has been a fixture in Austin for nearly three decades and is one of the state’s most prominent African American political leaders. He edged out Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, who ran as a “progressive,” garnering endorsements from a host of groups and figures on the left of the party, including New York U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez.

In North Carolina, Cunningham took 56 percent of the vote to 36 percent for State Senator Erika Smith from Gaston.

A group called the Faith and Power PAC poured spent more than $2 million airing ads promoting Smith as the “progressive” in the race. Federal financial disclosure records show that the group was largely financed by the Senate Leadership Fund, a PAC closely aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that appeared to be trying to complicate Cunningham’s bid to unseat Tillis.

The Senate races in North Carolina and Texas are at the top of the Democrats’ target list for 2020, while Jones is considered to be the country’s most vulnerable Democratic incumbent in dark red Alabama.

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