On Tuesday, Alabama voters will decide whether they’re ready to send a Democrat to the Senate for the first time in decades ― or whether they’ll stick with the GOP, even though the party’s nominee has been accused of child molestation.
For many in the state, the special election has become a way to project a message to the rest of the nation on what Alabama is. And Democrats are hoping an unexpected win will reinvigorate their base and set the stage for the 2018 midterm elections.
Supporters of Democrat Doug Jones want to shed the stereotype of Alabama as a stagnant backwater. Jones is best known for his work as a U.S. attorney in the 1990s, prosecuting Ku Klux Klan members for blowing up a black church in 1963. Sending him to the Senate, they say, would be a positive step forward.
“We just don’t look good in the news. You know what I’m saying? It looks like Hicksville,” Sy Belyeu, 48, told HuffPost. She’s an African-American Birmingham voter who is backing Jones. “There’s a lot of racism, a lot of homophobia. We don’t want to be characterized like that any longer.”
On the other side are the backers of Republican Roy Moore, who has long been known nationally for his conservative religious beliefs. As chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, he tried to stop the state from following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing marriage equality.
But during this race, Moore’s past interactions with teenage girls dominated the news. In November, The Washington Post published an article about four women who accused Moore pursued them when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s. One of them said she was 14 when he sexually assaulted her.
While many in Alabama ― including plenty of Republicans ― have been disgusted by the allegations, plenty of his supporters have stood by him. Some suspect the accusations are part of a plot by the liberal establishment to take down their man.
“I do not believe the allegations. It’s George Soros,” said Edna Bogue, 72, of Henagar, Alabama, referring to the billionaire Democratic donor.
“Haven’t we always been bad, like cousins marrying cousins? That’s not true, but people say what they want to say. Always have judged us,” Moore voter Ava Lyles, 71, told The Washington Post.
Moore backers have played up this us vs. them battle as much as possible. In one recent ad for Moore, the narrator says:
The same Washington insiders who don’t like President Trump are trying to stop our campaign. They just don’t like conservatives like us. They call us warmongers for wanting to rebuild the military. Racists for securing our borders. Bigots for recognizing the sanctity of marriage. And they call us foolish for believing in God. They’re afraid I’m going to take our Alabama values to Washington.
Jones has argued that Moore doesn’t represent the best of Alabama.
“We need to look at this as parents, as grandparents and not through the jaded lens of politics,” he said in a recent speech. “This is about decency, not a political party, and anyone who thinks otherwise should be ashamed. It is the people of Alabama, the parents of Alabama, who will hold Roy Moore accountable. This is about Alabama’s honor and doing what is right. Nothing more. And certainly nothing less.”
The special election to replace Jeff Sessions after he became President Donald Trump’s attorney general was never supposed to be a nail-biter. Alabama is a deep red state that Trump won by 28 percentage points and a place where he remains popular. It seemed like a safe seat for Republicans to hold on to.
But then Moore won the GOP primary, against the wishes ― and the considerable financial investment ― of the Republican establishment. Moore has underperformed other Republican candidates in his two statewide runs for office, making him more vulnerable to a strong challenge, according to Democrats.
And Democrats feel like they got lucky with Jones, who has a strong biography and has had few significant missteps in the campaign.
National Democrats largely stayed quiet in the race, believing that their presence would hurt Jones in a state where Democrats aren’t all that popular. But in the final days, they’ve gone all in. They’ve sent out dozens of fundraising solicitations, and former President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden both recorded robocalls for Jones.
Jones’ strategy has centered on three goals: expanding the Democratic electorate (primarily by targeting African-American voters), persuading some Republicans who don’t like Moore to cross the aisle and hoping other Republicans stay home.
In the final few days, high-profile African-American politicians, including Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), have gone to the state to campaign for Jones. NBA Hall of Famer and Alabama native Charles Barkley was at Jones’ final rally Monday night in Birmingham, which has a heavy African-American population.
While some Republicans remained opposed to Moore, some warmed up to him, or at least the idea of him becoming a senator, in the final weeks as well. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went from saying Moore needed to step aside to saying simply, “I’m going to let the people of Alabama make the call.” And Trump endorsed Moore last week and recorded a robocall for the embattled candidate.
If Moore wins, some Republican senators have called for the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate the sexual misconduct allegations against him ― although a Moore adviser said he highly doubts it will actually happen.
And even if Democrats lose, they’ll no doubt continue to go after Moore. After pushing Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) out of their own caucus, Democrats will force Republicans to defend the presence in their party of both Moore and Trump, who has now been accused of misconduct by 16 women.