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DECATUR, Ala. (AP) — Democrats in Alabama were fired up inside a century-old art deco theater, where candidates in the party's U.S. Senate primary took turns dismissing President Trump's proposed border wall as stupid, swapping stories of people in poverty suffering without health care, and vowing to protect Planned Parenthood.
The crowd thundered and whistled in approval at the Thursday night forum, hopeful that Democrats actually have a longshot chance to win the seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The Deep South state has shifted firmly to the red column in the 20 years since Alabama last sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate. Democrats however are hoping a series of scandals involving Alabama Republicans has given them an opening, particularly if the GOP primary slugfest produces a polarizing nominee in the off-year election.
"We have a unique opportunity here. This is a transformational election," said Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney appointed by Bill Clinton, and one of the most well-known names in the crowded Democratic field.
The seven men seeking the Democratic nomination are a diverse group — they also include a retired naval officer, an environmentalist, a professor, a county constable, a businessman and an education company executive.
Jones is best known for reopening the cold case investigation into the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church and prosecuting two Klansman for the murders of the four little girls killed in the violent attack. He began legal career by working for the last Democrat to hold this seat, Sen. Howell Heflin.
Jones said he is emphasizing "kitchen table issues" such as wages, health care and jobs. He said Republicans are demonizing the Affordable Care Act. He said they're dismissing the concerns of hard-working Alabamians that they'll lose health care because of pre-existing conditions, and that GOP tax-breaks would only benefit the ultra-wealthy.
"If people are focused on issues, Democrats can go toe-to-toe with anybody and in fact win on most of those issues," Jones said.
Another candidate is Michael Hansen, an environmental advocate described as the first openly gay man to seek statewide office in Alabama.
"I'm telling voters — look at what has been done in Alabama. We need to try something different," Hansen said.
As a gay kid growing up in the Deep South, Hansen said he learned "to stand up to bullies," and therefore would love to go head-to-head against Roy Moore, whose moves against gay marriage led to his ouster as Alabama chief justice.
"I'll be perfectly honest, running against Roy Moore in a general election would be my dream," he said.
Robert Kennedy, Jr., an African-American Naval Academy graduate who gets noticed for his name even though he's unrelated to the famed Massachusetts political dynasty, said they must reach out to "moderate Republicans and independents" who once voted with Democrats.
Joan and David Williams nodded their heads as they listened to the candidates.
"There's an energy. Right now so many people are so afraid of what Trump is doing," Joan Williams said.
"I'm afraid today we could lose the country, we could lose the whole bloody planet if Trump gets his way," said David Williams, who wore a shirt with a Neil deGrasse Tyson quote: "The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
The seat is currently held by Sen. Luther Strange, who was appointed by Gov. Robert Bentley before he resigned in scandal. Strange faces a crowded field of GOP primary opponents including Moore, U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, state Sen. Trip Pittman and Dr. Randy Brinson, who used to run Alabama's Christian Coalition.
The Republican and Democratic winners will face off in a December match-up when there are no other races in the ballot.
Democrats had similar hopes of flipping Georgia's 6th congressional district, but lost that race in June. The math is even more daunting in Alabama, which hasn't elected a Democrat as governor since 1998. All statewide offices are held by Republicans.
Jones told The Associated Press that he's told people for years that losing will remain a self-fulfilling prophecy until "good people step up."
It's time for Democrats to try, he said.
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