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News Brief: Outlook For Alabama, California Fires, Honduras Election


Here's a question that Alabama voters answer this week. Can a Democrat really win a Senate seat in such a red state?


So this thing would hardly be in question except for the many accusations against Republican Roy Moore. So the Democrat Doug Jones is actually close in the polls - close yet he's still behind, amid stories of Moore's past conduct with teenage women and girls. Alabama's senior senator meanwhile, Richard Shelby, told CNN's "State Of The Union" that he actually wrote in a different Republican's name in his absentee ballot.


RICHARD SHELBY: So many accusations, so many cuts, so many drip, drip, drip. When it got to the 14-year-old's story, that was enough for me. I said, I can't vote for Roy Moore.

MARTIN: While President Trump recorded robocalls for Moore's campaign.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Roy Moore is the guy we need to pass our make America great again agenda.

INSKEEP: NPR congressional reporter Susan Davis will be covering whoever wins that Senate race. And she's in our studios. Good morning, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So where does this race stand?

DAVIS: I think Roy Moore certainly has the advantage going into Tuesday's election because this is still fundamentally a very conservative state. But there is a path for Doug Jones to win. Mathematically, it is polling competitively. I think it's fair to say this has been an unusual and unpredictable Senate race, so it's hard to know exactly how voters are going to turn on Tuesday.

INSKEEP: I guess there's a couple of ways that Moore's support could erode. Voters might not show up for him, Republican voters, or voters might effectively not show up by doing what Richard Shelby did, writing an absentee ballot.

DAVIS: Exactly...

INSKEEP: Writing a ballot - writing a write-in ballot is what I meant to say.

DAVIS: Exactly. And two of the big questions here are what do disaffected Republicans do? Do they show up and do they vote for Moore or do they write in? If there is this tremendous write-in campaign, that could also give Doug Jones a path certainly to win with a plurality of the votes. And then for Doug Jones, the challenge is can he really juice Democratic turnout, particularly among African-American voters, which make up a big part of the Democratic Party in Alabama? We just don't know the answers to these questions yet.

INSKEEP: You know, and it's not just the accusations against Moore. When you are in a situation like this in a state like Alabama, it's happened in my home state of Indiana, elsewhere, when national attention focus is on you, a voter could respond a couple of different ways. A voter could say, I'm embarrassed. I want this to end. Goodbye, Roy Moore. Or I'm angry that outsiders are telling me what to do, I vote for Roy Moore. You could see both of those responses.

DAVIS: This has also been an interesting race because it is testing this theme that we talked about throughout the 2016 elections and continues in this country is this issue of tribalism. And does your political affiliation and your political views trump everything else you've learned about a candidate that you just simply wouldn't vote for the other side?

INSKEEP: Very briefly, if Moore should win, what happens then?

DAVIS: The one thing we know for sure is that he will face a Senate ethics investigation. We don't know what happens then. There isn't much past precedent for the Senate or the House, for that matter, to investigate the behavior of candidates before they were elected to office. Although I would note that the decision of Al Franken to resign also comes into play here because senators were also calling on him to leave the Senate over behavior that happened before he was elected.

MARTIN: I mean, you talk about how the national media has seized on this and that might have deleterious effects for both campaigns. We should just note, our editor and producer have been on the ground reporting there. They found that even Democrats, the Doug Jones campaign, not interested in talking to national media at this point. I'm going to join them later today. We'll report from Alabama and bring you what we find - hopefully some answers to these questions.

INSKEEP: OK, we're going to be listening to Rachel Martin there. We've been listening to Sue Davis now. Susan, thanks very much.

DAVIS: You're welcome.


INSKEEP: That's the sound of firefighting helicopters fighting a wildfire in Southern California.


MARTIN: It's called the Thomas fire, and it's now the fifth largest wildfire in California history. It has scorched more than 230 acres or some 360 square miles. That is larger than the area of New York City. Now this blaze is moving closer to coastal beach communities near Santa Barbara.

INSKEEP: Which is where we've reached NPR's Eric Westervelt, who is near the coastal community of Carpinteria. Am I saying that correctly, Eric?

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: You're pretty close, Carpinteria, yeah.

INSKEEP: What have you been seeing there?

WESTERVELT: Well, there's kind of this incredible sight, Steve. Right now the entire hillside just outside of Carpinteria is on fire. I mean, this is a small, picturesque beach community. And if you drove along Highway 101 right now between Santa Barbara and Ventura, you'll see mile after mile of a raging fire with uncontrolled fire lines. And last night, you know, I stood along Highway 192 in the city residential area with, you know, folks who lived there who were watching this fire. And these just orange and red flames were shooting skyward as this fire moved west just above the city.

And the concern is, Steve, there's lots of built up fuel here, I mean, bone-dry fuel and vegetation that hasn't burned in some 70 years. So, you know, no rain, lots of fuel and potentially more strong Santa Ana winds is a really bad recipe for firefighters.

INSKEEP: Which must be frustrating for firefighters. We imagine them trying to stop a fire. But when there's that much fuel there, essentially what's going to burn is going to burn, right? I mean, the best they can hope for is to redirect it a little bit?

WESTERVELT: That's exactly right. And really firefighters, some 6,000 of them, lost ground on this fire this weekend. You know, they've been fighting it for a week. The fire grew Sunday, Steve, by more than 50,000 acres. Containment dropped from 15 percent down to 10 percent. And so right now they're really just playing defense, defending homes in population areas but kind of unable to aggressively, you know, attack or go after the fire in ways that would help contain it.

INSKEEP: So I guess people in areas like this were aware that they live near hills and near forest land and grasslands and things that can burn. It's not like fire is a new thing. But being there in California, Eric, During this year of two immense fires, one in Northern California and Southern California, I'm just curious if people are beginning to think about the threat of fire and living with fire differently?

WESTERVELT: I think there is a change going on. People are fearful. They're seeing these bigger fires last longer and later. We're talking a fire in now, you know, mid-December. People haven't seen that. The fire season is usually, you know, summer and fall. So this is different. This is new, and I think it has people shaken. The governor this weekend called it the new normal for California, big drought-driven, climate-change-affected fires.

INSKEEP: The community where you're at, is it largely evacuated, partly evacuated? How would you describe it?

WESTERVELT: There's voluntary and mandatory evacuation orders in place where I am. It really depends on where you live. If you're closer up into the mountains, you're mandatory. Other places - where I am right now, it's a voluntary evacuation. Got a note from the hotel under my door and in the email this morning saying, by the way, it's a voluntary evacuation. It may go to mandatory later today. And if it does, we're going to kick you out.

INSKEEP: OK, be safe, Eric. Appreciate it.


INSKEEP: That's NPR's Eric Westervelt in Southern California.


INSKEEP: We are also tracking a political standoff in Honduras.

MARTIN: More than two weeks after Hondurans went to the polls to elect a new president, there is still no official winner. The current president holds a slight lead, but officials have yet to declare him the winner amid allegations of widespread fraud.

INSKEEP: Let's bring in NPR's Carrie Kahn, who is in the Honduran capital. Hi there, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi, good morning.

INSKEEP: So how is there still no winner two weeks later?

KAHN: It's been tough. The electoral tribunal here is moving very cautiously. International observers have already publicly criticized their handling of the election, citing what they call irregularities. There's allegations of vote buying, ballot stuffing. One of those glaring irregularities was a yet to be explained shutdown of the tribunal's vote tally computer. Steve, it went down the day after the election when the opponent in the race, TV star here Salvador Nasralla, had a five-point lead. When the computer came back up 36 hours later, that lead had eroded and the president, Juan Orlando Hernandez, was winning.


KAHN: There was a partial recount that was completed yesterday. And those were for those votes that came into election headquarters after the computer glitch. The results of that were pretty much the same as the original data. And yesterday, supporters of Nasralla, the opposition candidate, took to the streets again. He says he rejects the recount's conclusions mainly because the electoral tribunal is run by the president's appointees. He wants the whole election results to be thrown out, a total recount vote by vote done by international independent auditors.

INSKEEP: I guess Americans learned in our own presidential election of 2000 that once you start having reason to contest the results of a specific election, it gets very difficult to nail that down. It's extraordinarily complex.

KAHN: Well, I was going to tell you, there was this scene in this huge warehouse where election workers were doing that recount. And they were holding up each - examining each ballot, holding them up in the air and reading out the names of the candidates. And it really struck me to the similar scenes of the 2000 Bush-Gore recount, you know, without any hanging chads, of course.

INSKEEP: I guess not. But certainly some problems to deal with. So is there a deadline by which someone must be declared president? I mean, I guess there's a point at which you need to have an inauguration, right?

KAHN: Of course. And the electoral tribunal has a month from Election Day, which was November 26. So that would bring the deadline to December 26, the day after Christmas. And, you know, this is supposed to be the holiday season. And so it's a difficult time in Honduras right now.

INSKEEP: How tense are people on the street when you talk with them?

KAHN: Well, the protests have - are happening nearly daily. But they are much more passive than they were - peaceful than they were in the early days right after the election result. You know, during that time, 14 people were killed and hundreds were arrested. And they've just become more peaceful and the police have backed away from more repressive control measures than those first days.

INSKEEP: OK, Carrie, thanks very much. We'll be listening for the results whenever they get in.

KAHN: Yes. Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Carrie Kahn reporting today from Honduras. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.