BIRMINGHAM, Alabama—Democrat Doug Jones was elected to the U.S. Senate on Tuesday in a dramatic and shocking end to a polarizing campaign that turned a state race into a spectacle watched around the world.
Many said the choice between candidates represented a battle for the future of the south where Republicans have dominated in recent decades.
The surprise outcome, which defied the majority of polls, shocked voters who didn’t think it was possible to elect a Democrat.
As the results were announced, the Jones headquarters erupted in screams. After CNN declared Jones the winner, many in the crowd began to dance with joy.
John England, 70, a judge of the 6th Circuit Court in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, struggled to hold back tears. England was one of the first African Americans admitted to the University of Alabama School of Law.
“This was a victory for Alabama, for folks who believe in inclusion rather than exclusion,” he said, barely able to speak.
The seat, vacated by Jeff Sessions when he became Attorney General, should have been a shoe-in for Republicans in deep red Alabama. Sessions ran unopposed in 2014 winning 97% of the vote.
Jones, a 63-year-old former U.S. attorney, became the first Democrat in the state to win a seat in the U.S. Senate in 25 years. He won by a margin of 1.5% in a state that President Trump carried by 28 points last November.
Exit polls show women across Alabama casting their ballots for Jones by a 57% to 42% margin. He also won 96% of the black vote in an election marked by higher than usual turnout of around 40%.
Jones ran against anti-establishment conservative Judge Roy Moore, a controversial figure in Alabama before the election who became even more so when allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced against him in early November. Moore appealed to the state’s white, evangelical Christian base, repeatedly citing the Bible in campaign speeches.
On Tuesday night in downtown Birmingham, Jones was overwhelmed as he shared a message of unity.
“I have always believed that the people of Alabama have more in common than what divides us. We have shown not just around the state of Alabama but we have shown the country the way that we can be unified,” he said.
It was a special occasion for Jones in more than one way as he and his wife also celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary on Tuesday.
Blow for Trump
The results amounted to a repudiation of President Donald Trump, who’s at a record low 38% approval rating. Despite supporting Moore’s opponent Luther Strange in the Republican primary, Trump came out in support of Moore in the final weeks of the campaign.
Trump was unusually gracious in defeat, tweeting his congratulations to Jones, not waiting for Moore to concede.
The outcome stings for the Republican Party: they lose a Senate seat in a deep-red state, leaving them in the majority by a razor thin 51-49 margin with a vital tax reform bill still up in the air. The election highlighted tensions between Trump and the Republican leadership in Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who was openly hostile to Moore.
Steve Bannon, Trump's former chief strategist, campaigned across the state for Moore, declaring him the best candidate to stand up to the liberal Washington elite.
After reports surfaced in early November that Moore had inappropriate contact with teenage girls, many Republican leaders urged Moore to step down. He repeatedly denied the charges.
This past weekend, Alabama senator Richard Shelby encouraged Alabama voters to write in the name of a Republican other than Moore. In the end, the record 23,000 write-in votes were decisive, as Jones won by less than 21,000 votes.
Moore appeared briefly before his supporters in Montgomery, Alabama, but was not ready to concede.
"We've been portayed unfavorably. We've been put in a hole," he said. Noting hopefully that "God is always in control," he said votes were still being counted. "It's not over," he added before citing Scripture and leaving the room.
John Merrill, Alabama Secretary of State, later told CNN the election was effectively over as far as he was concerned. "The people of Alabama have spoken," he said.
By law the election result must be certified no later than Dec. 26, wth Jones expected to be sworn in some time in early January.
Civil rights hero
A well-liked, home-grown former U.S. attorney, Jones was largely overlooked in a race dominated by Moore's alleged misdeeds. He famously won the conviction of two white KKK members for a 1963 church bombing that killed four young black girls.
Lisa McNair, 53, the sister of one of the four girls, was at the Jones victory party in Birmingham, Alabama. “Oh my God, I’m so excited,” she shrieked in a phone interview as she was leaving. “For Alabama to really go anywhere Doug Jones had to win, or it was Armageddon for us, it was the end.”
Despite a weak Democratic party structure in the state, Jones ran an effective grassroots campaign. He raised twice as much as Moore in the final stretch of the campaign, outspending his rival heartily on hard-hitting TV ads that depicted Moore as an out-of-touch religious bigot, unfit for office and an embarrassment to the state.
In the last week, the candidates adopted dramatically different strategies. Moore essentially disappeared, while Jones made dozens of appearances across the state, attracting visits from national political figures and celebrities.
Jones’ attracted an army of thousands of volunteers to knock on doors and make phone calls.
Former Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb, who is running as a Democrat for governor in 2018, said she thinks Jones will be a leader who appeals to Alabamians on both sides of the aisle.
“Doug made it clear he’s going to reach across and talk to voters. People in Alabama are tired of the drama. They’re tired of folks who make politics more important than doing the right thing.”
Cobb was one of the last Democrats elected to statewide office in Alabama. Since 2013, Republicans have held all statewide offices—until now.
Wake up call
Former NBA star Charles Barkley, who is from Alabama and campaigned with Jones, told CNN that the election was an important turning point for the state. "We’ve been stuck in a time warp for a long time," he said, referring to its reputation for racism and the rejection of gay rights.
“This is just really a referendum on Alabama. We really needed this,” he added. "I’m just so proud of my state. Yeah, we got a bunch of rednecks, and some ignorant people, but we got some amazing people here, and they really rolled up today.”
Barkley also had some words of advice for the Democratic Party about the need to embrace minority voters: "They’ve taken the black vote and the poor vote for granted for a long time," he said. "It’s time for them to get off their arse and start making life better for black folks and people who are poor."
"They’ve always had our votes and they’ve abused our votes," he added. "This is a wake up call.”
Additional reporting by David Adams in Miami