In a mere 34 days, a sure Republican win crumpled into an upset in Alabama’s special election for the US Senate. It was 34 days ago—though it may feel much longer—that Republican Roy Moore was accused by women of dating them when they were teenagers, with one saying that he tried to initiate sex when she was just 14. Since then, Moore has vigorously denied those allegations, even as additional women came forward to accuse him of harassment and assault.
Despite the scandal, the outspoken ultra-conservative Christian fundamentalist, who beat the more mainstream Luther Strange in a GOP primary, was not out of the race. Though the national party pulled its support in the wake of the initial Washington Post story about the accusations, after Donald Trump endorsed Moore the Republican National Committee began funding him again in the last week of the race. It wasn’t enough, with Democrat Doug Jones eking out a victory by a little more than a percentage point. (Moore has not yet conceded.)
Backlash against Moore among suburban Republicans, and a newly energized Democratic base, created an unlikely coalition that propelled Jones to victory as the first Alabama Democrat elected to the Senate in a quarter-century and the first to win any statewide office in nearly a decade. It was a banner day for Jones, who also celebrated his 25th wedding anniversary on Tuesday.
In Jefferson County, Alabama’s largest, which is home to both Democrat-voting Birmingham and wealthy suburban Republican power bases, Jones won by some 83,000 votes. His statewide margin of victory was fewer than 21,000 ballots. Overall turnout was nearly 41 percent, far above the secretary of state’s election-eve estimate of 25 percent of the state’s 3.3 million voters.
The write-in vote was another factor. More than 22,000 people statewide cast write-in ballots, including Richard Shelby, Alabama’s senior Republican senator. Saying Moore’s accusers were credible and Alabama’s GOP could “do better,” Shelby made a point of publicly announcing he voted for an unnamed “distinguished Republican” rather than Moore and urged fellow Republicans to do the same.
Jones’s victory is remarkable on multiple levels. The state Democratic Party, which has been all but dead for a decade, has not gone much above 40 percent recently in any statewide vote. Moore, who has built a strong following for his evangelical views and for thumbing his nose at federal authority, generally can rely on fervent support by one-third of the dominant state Republican Party, especially in rural counties. National media coverage criticizing Moore, and national Republicans’ and Democrats’ calls for him to drop out of the race, were expected to motivate his voters even further. Plus, state GOP leaders fervently backed Moore, and warned Republicans to toe the party line.
But establishment Republicans in Alabama—the business wing and well-to-do suburbanites—never liked Moore. He was elected Alabama’s chief justice twice and booted from office both times for refusing to follow federal court orders. His extreme views on homosexuality (he has suggested being gay should be illegal) and religion (he said 9/11 was God’s retribution on the US and contended Muslims should not be allowed to serve in Congress) further alienated the establishment Republican wing and even created concerns Moore’s election to the Senate could drive potential economic development and tourism out of state. The recent allegations that Moore pursued teens as an adult—including a woman’s charge in mid November that Moore sexually assaulted her when she was 16—were too much for those Republicans.
Alabama’s four major urban areas—Birmingham/Hoover (Jefferson County), Huntsville (Madison County), Montgomery, and Mobile—all backed Jones. Mobile County, which supported Donald Trump with 56 percent of the vote in 2016, went 56 percent for Jones on Tuesday. Madison County, which also gave Trump 56 percent, reversed to back the Democrat. Central Alabama’s Black Belt counties—farm country with rich, black soil spreading east and west from Montgomery—mostly voted overwhelmingly for Jones. Jefferson, Montgomery, and the Black Belt counties all have substantial African American populations, who voted nearly as a bloc for the Democrat. Exit polls also showed stronger-than-expected support for Jones among women, though Moore had the edge among white women, including white women with college degrees.
It was one of the strangest elections in some time in Alabama. Bikers for Trump showed Moore some political love while women dressed in Handmaidens Tale garb protested him. Trump, who supported Moore’s opponent in the Republican primary, endorsed Moore and recorded a robocall for him this week, while Barack Obama recorded one for Jones. Moore bet big by showcasing Steve Bannon at rallies; Jones raised the ante with a free concert by Alabama natives Jason Isbell and St. Paul and the Broken Bones. And Moore, as is his habit, rode his horse Sassy to the polls Tuesday, reportedly telling media thronging around his skittish ride, “You get in my way you’ll get run over, so I’m giving you warning.”
For many inside and outside Alabama, Tuesday’s special election came down to morals. Jones’s pro-choice stance normally would be a dealbreaker in Alabama, where most voters say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.
But, in the #metoo era, the election arguably boiled down to whether a majority of voters were willing to overlook credible evidence Moore was a sexual predator of teenaged girls. As al.com columnist John Archibald put it, Alabama voters “made a political decision that many found hard, a decision that put decency over party, character over tribe. It stood for mothers and sisters and daughters and fellow human beings.”
Moore refused to concede defeat Tuesday night. There is some talk he will seek a recount, which is automatic if the candidates wind up less than one-half of one percentage point apart. With only provisional ballots uncounted, Jones currently leads comfortably in the automatic recount context by 1.54 percentage points.
Many in Alabama were worried Moore’s election would make him the state’s new George Wallace, an enduring symbol of intolerance and prejudice to the rest of the nation and the world. Jones, a former US attorney who won murder convictions in 2001 and 2002 against two Klansmen in the notorious 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, campaigned on a theme of putting Alabama on the “right side of history.”
In his victory speech Tuesday, Jones invoked Martin Luther King’s quote about the long moral arc of the universe bending toward justice. “Tonight,” Jones told his supporters, “in this time, in this place, you helped bend that moral arc a little closer to that justice.”
Eric Velasco is a freelance writer based in Birmingham, Alabama. A journalist for 35 years, he has covered numerous Alabama elections and has researched the influence of money and advertising in judicial election nationally.