Voting underway in contentious Alabama Senate race
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Alabama voters headed to the polls Tuesday for a pivotal special election in which allegations of inappropriate behavior against Republican candidate Roy Moore have created a unique opportunity for Democrats in the typically ruby-red Deep South.
The closely watched race between Moore and Democrat Doug Jones is expected to set the stage for the 2018 midterm elections by testing the influence of President Donald Trump and his allies, such as former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, in a tight election. Democrats are hoping to capitalize politically on allegations of sexual misconduct against Trump and other members of the GOP, and a win by Jones would help bolster their chances of regaining control of the Senate after next year's contests.
Voting began at 7 a.m. Central time on Tuesday, as both candidates implored their supporters to head to the polls.
About an hour later, Trump took to Twitter to urge votes for Moore.
"The people of Alabama will do the right thing," he tweeted. "Doug Jones is Pro-Abortion, weak on Crime, Military and Illegal Immigration, Bad for Gun Owners and Veterans and against the WALL. Jones is a Pelosi/Schumer Puppet. Roy Moore will always vote with us."
National political leaders, a Hollywood actress and a retired basketball star had made last-ditch efforts Monday to woo Alabama voters as the candidates gave their final arguments. Ahead of the election, which has attracted more than $41 million in spending, former president Barack Obama and former vice president Joe Biden recorded robo-calls for Jones while Trump recorded an appeal for Moore.
The evening before, for his last event of the campaign, Moore brought in a raft of out-of-state conservative activists, including Bannon, Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, and former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke to energize his supporters.
"They tried to destroy Donald Trump, and they're trying to destroy Roy Moore," Bannon said. "There's no bottom for how low they'll go."
The stakes are high for both parties, as the outcome is likely to lay the groundwork for the 2018 midterm races. A win in the Deep South for Democrats, the first in a Senate race in Alabama since 1992, would be a rebuke to Trump and Bannon, who have promoted Moore over the objections of establishment Republicans. Moore is accused of pursuing romantic relationships with teenage girls while in his mid-30s; one woman said he touched her sexually when she was 14. He has denied wrongdoing.
The victory would also lend credibility to Democratic efforts to regain control of the Senate next year. "The Democratic path to a Senate majority in 2018 involves a miracle somewhere," said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "And we may be on the cusp of a Democratic miracle in Alabama."
If Jones wins, Senate leaders will face pressure from Democrats to seat him before final votes on the GOP tax bill. The Alabama secretary of state's office said the election result could be certified with the Senate as early as Dec. 27 to 29 and no later than Jan. 3.
A win for Moore, in contrast, would weaken the hand of mainstream Republicans, who have struggled to broaden the party's appeal heading into the midterms. Moore, a former state Supreme Court judge, has campaigned on a platform of opposing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has said he expects Moore will face an immediate investigation by the Senate Select Committee on Ethics if he is elected. Senate Republican leaders withdrew support for Moore in the wake of the misconduct allegations.
Early signs in Mountain Brook, a traditionally Republican suburb of Birmingham, seemed promising for Jones: while turnout was heavy, Moore supporters were scarce.
Several voters said they were specifically voting against Moore, a former Alabama chief justice, who was twice removed from office. "He didn't obey the laws of our country," said Patty Crow, 44, an elementary school librarian. "The vote for Jones would have been difficult if he was running against another Republican."
Others agreed. "This is the first time I've voted for a Democrat," said Henry Waller, 24, who works in logistics for a granite company.
He said he was bothered by what he saw as Moore's religious intolerance. "I'm a Christian and I think Moore represents the absolute worst way to put Christianity into politics."
And some were even more blunt. "I'm not going to vote for the pedophile," said Lee Pope, 51, a Birmingham attorney, who was casting a vote for Jones.
Jones, who voted in Mountain Brook, expressed confidence in his chances.
"We feel great," he said. "I don't think that Roy Moore's going to win this election."
In its final days, the race seemed dominated by outside voices.
Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, a Republican who was born in Alabama, released a statement encouraging people to vote that seemed to rebuke Moore but stopped short of naming him. "These critical times require us to come together to reject bigotry, sexism, and intolerance," she wrote.
Meanwhile, a Republican national committeewoman from Nebraska, Joyce Simmons, announced that she had resigned her post in protest of her party's continued financial support for Moore.
Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., who voted for a write-in candidate, said Sunday that he found Moore's accusers to be "believable" and that Moore would not represent the state well.
"I think Alabama deserves better," Shelby said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union."
Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill said he expects about 25 percent of eligible voters to cast a ballot in the special election, making the race difficult to predict. Three new polls released Monday showed dramatically different results, based on different projections of who would vote.
An automated poll from Emerson College showed Moore with a nine-point advantage, while a poll from Fox News showed Jones with a 10-point lead. A Monmouth University Poll showed the race about even.
"I'm hearing everything," said Brian Walsh, president of America First Action, an outside group that has spent more than $1.1 million on mail, television and digital ads to support Moore. "Nobody knows what the hell is going on right now."
Reports of the robo-calls from Obama and Biden created some awkwardness for Jones, who has tried to win over Republican voters by portraying himself as an independent figure who is unbeholden to party leaders. At the same time, he has relied on marquee national names to help boost Democratic turnout, especially among African American voters.
Moore, who had not held a campaign event since Dec. 5, made his final pitch to voters in Midland City, Alabama, on Monday night.
"We dare defend our rights," Moore declared when he took the stage, quoting the Alabama motto that was used by state leaders in the 1960s, during the fight against desegregation. He spoke after his wife, Kayla Moore, defended his commitment to diversity.
"My husband appointed the very first black marshal to the Alabama Supreme Court," she said. "Fake news will tell you that we don't care for Jews. One of our attorneys is a Jew." The media, she added, needs to be "held accountable" for how it has covered the race.
"What they're doing to Judge Roy Moore, they're going to try to do to every Trump supporter running for Congress next year," said Corey Stewart, a Prince William County, Virginia, supervisor who is running for the Republican nomination against Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., in 2018.
Bannon, meanwhile, making his third trip to Alabama to endorse Moore, drew boos when he mentioned Shelby and "little Bobby Corker," a reference to regular Trump critic Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. Bannon suggested that Republican leaders might try to take out Trump "as soon as they get that tax cut" - and he even took an apparent shot at Trump's daughter, Ivanka, who has criticized Moore.
"There's a special place in hell for Republicans who should know better," Bannon said, reworking a comment that Ivanka Trump had made about the misconduct allegations against Moore - one that was quickly turned into an ad by Jones.
Jones held a final campaign rally in Birmingham, where he was joined on stage by basketball Hall of Famer and Alabama native Charles Barkley, actress Alyssa Milano and the city's newly elected mayor, Randall Woodfin, among others.
In a 10-minute speech, Jones framed the election as a momentous chapter in Alabama's history. He also encouraged voters to put "decency" ahead of party loyalty and urged them to consider how Alabama will be viewed by business leaders as a result of the election.
Trump campaigned for Moore over the weekend from a distance. After touting him at a Friday evening rally just across the border in Florida, he recorded a phone call for him Saturday.