BIRMINGHAM, Alabama—Steve Crainich is a lifelong Republican. He’s pro-life, fiscally conservative and wants less government regulation. He’s voted Republican in every presidential race since 1984, including for Trump last year.
But on September 26, the 54-year-old pharmacist from Alabaster, named the most conservative city in the country in 2014, hit a wall.
That day, former state Supreme Court Judge Roy Moore defeated incumbent Sen. Luther Strange in the Alabama Republican Senate primary. Moore—who had previously been removed twice from Alabama’s Supreme Court—would officially be the party’s choice to run against Democrat Doug Jones for U.S. Senate.
So Crainich sat down at his computer and created a Facebook page. He called it, simply, “Republicans for Doug Jones.”
“Let's get this Roy Moore defeat underway,” he wrote. “Share and unite against hate.”
“I couldn’t sit back and watch Moore get elected without doing something,” Crainich told Univision News. “Roy Moore loves Roy Moore but not much else. He would be an embarrassment to Alabama. I had to do something.”
Crainich isn't alone. A number of Republicans are urging their conservative family members and friends to cross party lines to keep Moore out of the Senate. That’s unusual in Alabama, a deep red state where Republican candidates at all levels routinely win by large margins. Alabama hasn't elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1992. The fact that the race is so tight shows just how deeply unpopular Moore really is. The latest
polls put Moore up by just four or five points.
Now, Crainich’s page is logging thousands of hits per day. Hundreds of homes across the state have “GOP for Jones” and “No Moore” signs on their front lawns. Even the Jones campaign put out a
video of Republican supporters voicing their support for the Democrat.
But while Moore may be turning away some Republicans, many say they doubt that’s enough to hand Jones an outright win. In Alabama, polls show most Republicans will vote for Moore while holding their noses. Some would rather cast ballots for a write-in candidate, or boycott and stay home altogether, than vote for a Democrat.
In Alabama, your party means a whole lot, says Natalie M. Davis, an American Politics professor at Birmingham-Southern College—even as much as your football team.
“Everything is zero sum in Alabama: if I win you must lose,” she says. “Democrats and Republicans just don’t truck together in their political thinking. And that’s there, whether we think it’s a joke or it’s funny, it’s part of the culture of this state.”
For many Republicans, Moore became exponentially more toxic in early November, after the Washington Post published a bombshell investigation outlining allegations by a number of women that the candidate had harassed and sexually assaulted them decades ago; four of them were teenagers at the time.
“It really was a come to Jesus moment,” says Kim Dowdle, a 43-year-old mother-of-two, lifelong Republican and devout Mormon who lives in Hoover, south of Birmingham.
After voting for Strange in the primary, Dowdle got behind Moore and even grew to like his renegade personality. She appreciated his past efforts to display the Ten Commandments in various Alabama courthouses.
“I've been raised in the south and the Christian roots here are strong. I liked his ‘go against the grain’ mentality. I liked it. I really did.”
But on November 9, Dowdle read the news in horror. She immediately believed Moore’s accusers.
Dowdle says she was raped, brutally, when she was 16, by her then-boyfriend. She spent three months in the hospital recovering. She knows how hard it is to come out about sexual assault in the south.
“I thought ‘oh my gosh what am I going to do?’ I have never voted out of party, and I have never not voted. [Voting] is my favorite right.”
Dowdle prayed. She talked to friends. And she watched as a number of prominent Republicans called for Moore to step down. A few days later, Dowdle knew: she wouldn’t vote for her party’s candidate.
But she decided to take it even a step further.
“When I know something's not right I totally turn from it and I do what I know is right,” she says. “I'm very passionate about things and so when I decided I was going to vote for Jones I was going all in. I decided I was going to start campaigning.”
Like other Republicans who’ve come out for Jones, Dowdle says she’s been called a “traitor” and a “back stabber.” She’s also been told she’s supporting a “baby killer.”
By most measures, Jones, a former U.S. attorney, is actually a moderate candidate. Staunch Republicans in Alabama say they can't vote for him a range of reasons, like Supreme Court nominations, Second Amendment rights and the fact that electing a Democrat to the seat would hinder the Trump agenda. But the top reason most voters give for being unable to vote for him is his stance on abortion.
For many Alabama voters, abortion is even worse than Moore’s sexual misconduct allegations.
“It’s definitely the number one reason why people tell me they can’t vote for Jones,” Dowdle says. “That’s where people draw the line. And the conversation often just stops there.”
In a September 27 MSNBC interview, Jones said that he was “not in favor of anything that is going to infringe on a woman’s right and her freedom to choose.”
That was hard for many conservatives—and even some moderates—in Alabama to hear. Fifty-eight percent of adults in the state believe that abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s the third highest percentage in the country, after Arkansas and Mississippi, and tied with West Virginia.
In response, Alabama conservatives have used Jones’ words to try to characterize him as “pro-abortion” and a pawn of Planned Parenthood. Moore has referred to Jones as #AbortionJones on Twitter. And he’s pushed the false claim that Jones supports “full-term abortion.”
“Abortion is a button Republicans push in every election in Alabama, as they do nationally, and it resonates with their base,” Davis says. “That gives them 40 percent of the vote before you even start.”
But at least some in the pro-life movement are hitting back against that talking point.
In October, marketing strategist and blogger Matthew Tyson published a widely circulated op-ed in AL.com entitled “I'm pro-life and I'm voting for Doug Jones anyway.”
Others followed. Last week, conservative Christian columnist Dana Hall McCain urged fellow pro-life voters not to vote for Moore (though she did not urge support for Jones, either). And Republican columnist Cameron Smith asked this weekend: “Doug Jones's views on abortion may be disqualifying for conservatives, but why isn't Roy Moore's abject disrespect for the rule of law similarly damning?”
Tyson, 28, says it feels like people in the conservative Christian and pro-life movements are finally having conversations he’s hoped to have for years.
“If we’re serious about reducing abortion then we need to take a step back and look at the reality,” Tyson says. “The pro-life movement has been trying to outlaw abortion for 40 years and they haven’t. Maybe we need to look at this another way. This is a good time for us to talk about it.”
Other conservatives say the Republican party’s disdain of abortion feels more like empty promises at this point.
“Saying you’re against abortion is like raising a flag in this state that you’re a moral person,” says Tracy James, 44, a wardrobe consultant in Birmingham. “But there’s not much behind that. What do you do for babies who are born? What has Roy Moore ever done to abolish abortion in this state? Nothing.”
James comes from a long lineage of Republicans. Her cousin was a GOP Governor of Alabama. She even worked for then Senator Jeff Sessions two decades ago in Washington.
Amy Thompson, 49, says she’s sick of her party using the word “conservative” to describe its stance on a range of social issues.
Thompson, a former journalist who lives in a rural area of Baldwin County, in south Alabama, says Moore’s election has confirmed she no longer feels represented by the party she always belonged to. She says she now considers herself Independent. She will vote for Jones, and has gotten involved in local activities to support him.
“The tone of the party became so foreign to me when Obama was elected,” she says. “The conservative movement has been hijacked by the evangelical Christian movement.”
Crainich says he feels the same.
“I don’t really feel like I’m leaving the Republican Party, but that the Republican Party is leaving me,” says Crainich, who says he’s spending four to five hours per day on his Facebook page, moderating comments, in advance of Tuesday’s race.
His posts include articles and opinion pieces that support Jones and bash Moore, as well as videos and photos. Though some 2,000 people “like” the page, he says far more are interacting than that—they’re just scared to admit it. On a recent morning he woke up to 800 notifications.
It might not be enough to sink Moore, but Crainich says he’ll go to the voting booth with a clear conscience.
Then, after Tuesday, he’ll figure out where he fits on Alabama’s political spectrum.
“I’ve tried to go to a few Jones events around town, but I always end up feeling like an outsider,” he says. “I’m not really a Democrat or a Republican. I guess I don’t feel welcome in either place.”