MONTGOMERY, Alabama—Voters head to the polls across Alabama Tuesday after what’s been perhaps the most unusual special election campaign in the state’s history. It’s still anyone’s guess who may emerge victorious.
Republican Roy Moore, the state’s ex-chief justice, and Democrat Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney, have both taken turns leading the polls.
Meanwhile, experts say it’s extremely difficult to predict who will actually show up to vote at the end of such an unprecedented race, featuring a controversial Republican who is an accused sexual predator with a history of outlandish statements, which include touting strong "family values" present during the slave era and advocating for laws banning homosexuality.
“This is big. This is about the future of this country. This is about a political revolution," said Trip Pittman, a Republican state senator in Montrose, Alabama.
No Democrat has won an election for Senate in Alabama in 25 years. Putting a Democrat in the seat would narrow the GOP's slender majority in the U.S. Senate majority to 51-49, likely hindering the Republican agenda.
With so much at stake, it remains to be seen how many Republicans will come out against Moore and vote for a Democrat. Many from this electorate have been slow to come out publicly, some for fear of backlash. The creator of a “Republicans for Doug Jones” Facebook page, which has 2,000 members, only came out with his name last week.
Party loyalty in question
Alabama is an exceptionally inelastic state, meaning that people rarely cross party lines.
“When it comes to politics, there is an R and there is a D. And we vote this way no matter what,” said Michael Wilbanks, 48, a teacher in Birmingham. “But this time, I just cannot in any way whatsoever see why putting Roy Moore is a positive for Alabama. It’s negative all around.”
Republican Donna Wade, 50, from Gulf Shores, Alabama, said she’s disturbed by Moore’s past. “You can’t say that many people are lying,” she said. “Most women don’t come out at all.”
But for her, that’s not enough to break ranks. “I’m a staunch Republican all my life. I won’t vote for him but I hope he still wins.”
She said she plans to write in Luther Strange, the Republican candidate backed by President Donald Trump who Moore defeated in the primary.
Just like moderate Republicans who haven’t admitted they’re voting for Jones, there is also speculation that Moore will get votes from a number of people who haven’t wanted to admit to pollsters that they're voting for an alleged sexual predator.
One Republican woman, Kathy, 64, said she’s a “faithful” conservative, who has never in her life voted out of party.
She refused to provide her last name.
When asked if she supported Moore, she paused, struggling to respond.
“I--I support my party,” she said, unable to say the candidate’s name. “Look, I’m a Republican. I’ve always been a Republican. I always will be a Republican. I will vote for him.”
She added: “That’s just the way it is.”
At least some Republicans are putting party loyalty aside. For them, this is far bigger than a Senate seat.
“Why do we continue to confirm the rest of the country’s suspicions that Alabama is the land that time forgot?” said Amy Thompson, 49, a mother-of-two and a registered Republican in Fairhope who will vote for Jones. She is part of a “GOP for Jones” movement across the state that has attracted mostly college-educated white voters, many in wealthy suburbs in larger cities.
“This is a defining moment, this is a waking up. Many of us are stunned and alarmed,” Thompson said. “We’re living in a post-truth alternative reality where there seems to be no tipping point. Where is our sense of sanctity, value, morals? Our country cannot be this insane.”
Political revolution in the Deep South?
Both Moore and Jones came of age in the highly segregated deep south. Alabama was home to much of the civil rights struggle. And in many ways, the state continues to heal from those days.
Jones has dedicated his life to fighting racism and is best known for prosecuting two members of the KKK for their role in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. Those qualifications have largely been overshadowed by the media frenzy of a campaign season wracked by his opponent’s scandals.
Former civil rights activist David Thomas, 73, believes Alabama has moved on from those dark times and is ready to elect a Democrat.
“You know, I’ve seen Alabama change a lot over the years,” said Thomas, who was one of the first black teachers to be hired in newly-integrated Montgomery when he was in his early 20s.
“I didn’t even used to be able to use the front door of a restaurant. I had to go around to the back. Imagine that. It’s changed a lot here and now I think we’re just about ready for some more change.”
African Americans make up about 25 percent of eligible voters in Alabama.
In the campaign's final days, Moore and Jones sparred in relentless TV and radio ads. Flyers characterized Jones as
a dangerous Clinton-esque liberal who is pro-abortion. Moore was shown as grossly unfit, an extremist and racist and an embarrassment to the state.
Despite backing Moore’s opponent in the primary, Trump eventually endorsed the Republican candidate in the last week, likely giving him a critical boost. Although Trump's popularity has fallen to 38% nationally he won Alabama by 28% in Nov. 2016, the largest margin of victory in a presidential race in the state since 1972.
The invisible candidate
In the last week, the candidates adopted dramatically different strategies. Moore kept a low-profile, and has not held a public event in a week. He was even said to have spent the weekend in Philadelphia, at the Army-Navy football game. Meanwhile, Jones made dozens of appearances across the state, attracting visits from national political figures and celebrities.
“How many times have you seen a major candidate for an office as important as the United States Senator flee the state the weekend before the election?” Jones said Monday at a campaign stop at a well-known comfort food restaurant in Montgomery with a mostly African American clientele.
Moore has not talked to the press, and had virtually no ground game. Jones’ events routinely featured more journalists than attendees, and he attracted an army of thousands of volunteers to knock on doors and make phone calls, despite the relative absence of a state Democratic party. His campaign raised five times more money than his opponent, giving him an edge in TV ads.
Moore is set to vote at the Gallant Fire Station, about an hour outside of Birmingham, at 10 a.m. He will arrive on his horse Sassy. Jones will vote at the Brookwood Baptist Church in Mountain Brook, a wealthy suburb of Birmingham, at 7:30 a.m., and then spend the day greeting voters around the city.
Big evangelical vote
The outcome hinges on a few key groups. Jones needs millennials and African Americans to vote in huge numbers, as well as a sizable chunk of moderate Republicans who can’t stomach voting for Moore. Moore can count on a faithful conservative base: white evangelical Christians make up nearly half of Alabama’s electorate.
Moore has been criticized for his commentary on a range of issues. He has said that homosexuality should be illegal and that women should not be allowed to run for office. In September, during a rally, he reminisced fondly about family values being strong during slavery. “They cared for one another … Our families were strong, our country had a direction,” he said.
And still, Moore was a shoe-in to win until early November, when several women stepped forward alleging sexual misconduct. Two women said he assaulted them when they were teens and he was in his 30s. Moore has denied the charges.
Liberal commentators have been stunned by the failure of the GOP to reject Moore. Some Republican lawmakers said they would support expelling Moore from the Senate if he were elected.
But, many of Moore’s supporters say they don’t believe the allegations, which they call “fake news” invented by the liberal media. Others seem not to care.
“Moore would have won no doubt if the rumor mill didn’t start up,” said Rev. John Killian, 61, a past president of the Alabama State Baptist Convention. “It just shows: you get a nasty enough rumor going and you can defeat any candidate. The rumors are bologna.”
Others say Moore is a god-fearing hero defending a war on morality.
Joseph, 50, a former missionary, requested not to use his last name.
“Judge Moore is simply being persecuted because he is a true Christian,” he said outside of Moore’s Dec. 5 rally in southern Alabama. “He wants to change things. But people don’t want this country to go back to being a Christian nation.”
To Becky Vasko, 73, the former President of the South Baldwin County Republican Women, the threat of a Democrat is far worse than anything in Moore’s past.
“I’m old enough to remember the New Deal and the Great Society,” she said, referring to a series of social reforms and programs to uplift the nation in the decades after the Great Depression. “Not to mention Obamacare. That is enough for me. We support our party and our platform. We do not support the Democratic platform.”