Alabama’s U.S. Senate race should have been an easy victory for a Republican candidate in a state that hasn’t sent a Democrat to the chamber in a generation and overwhelmingly backed President Donald Trump in last year’s election.
Instead, Tuesday’s election is a dead heat that defies easy prediction.
The two candidates — Republican Roy Moore and Democrat Doug Jones — cast their votes early this morning. Moore rode a horse to his polling place 60 miles northeast of Birmingham, while Jones voted in a Baptist church in a Birmingham suburb. Now their campaigns are doing everything they can to encourage their supporters to go to the polls before they close at 7 p.m. Central Time.
Moore had held a steady lead in polls of Alabama voters until allegations that he initiated a sexual encounter with a 14-year-old girl and assaulted a 16-year-old, along with accounts he pursued relationships with other teenage girls, when he was in his 30s. He has denied the accusations and sought to tar Jones as a pro-abortion liberal who is out of sync with voters in a conservative state.
The outcome will reverberate beyond Alabama as both parties prepare for next year’s congressional elections.
An upset win by Jones in the heavily Republican state would add to a string of victories for Democrats in other statewide elections this year, raising the prospect of a swing in voter sentiment that could give them control of one or both chambers of Congress in 2019. It also would complicate the Republican legislative agenda by leaving them with thin 51-49 majority in the Senate.
A Moore win would keep the Alabama seat in Republican control but with a senator who’s vowed to battle the party’s leadership in Washington. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said Moore would likely face an ethics inquiry over the allegations against him, and Democrats are certain to use his presence in the Senate against Republicans in their campaigns. Moore could only be seated after the state certifies the election, which could occur as late as Dec. 23.
The two candidates made their closing arguments on Monday night in settings that evoked the cultural and political divide that’s come to define the two parties in modern America.
Jones held a rally in Birmingham, Alabama’s biggest city. With him were local and national celebrities: retired NBA player and Alabama native Charles Barkley, actress Uzo Aduba and newly elected Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin.
Nearly 200 miles away Moore held a “drain the swamp” themed election night eve event in a barn in Midland City, a small town in rural southeast Alabama. He also was backed by a small team of celebrities, including Breitbart News Executive Chairman Steve Bannon, Texas Representative Louie Gohmert, and former Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke.
Trump wasn’t there, but his presence was felt. Bannon, who had served as Trump’s chief strategist, told the crowd of about two hundred Moore supporters that Tuesday’s election is “greater than Judge Moore, it’s even greater than the people of Alabama.” At stake, according to Bannon, is whether the Washington establishment and the country’s elites can thwart what voters wanted when they elected Trump.
“It is the Trump miracle versus the nullification project,” he said.
The race to fill the Senate seat once held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions likely will be decided along the urban-rural lines that played a major role in last year’s presidential election and the votes are being cast amid shifting attitudes about sexual misconduct, intense partisanship and deep anti-establishment resentment in parts of the electorate.
The controversies that have dogged Moore through the final weeks of the election continued into Monday night’s rally, as his wife, Kayla, attempted to respond to allegations that her husband has made comments that were anti-Semitic while blaming “fake news” reporters in the audience.
“Fake news,” she said, “would tell you that we don’t care for Jews. I tell you all this because I’ve seen it all, and I just want to set the record straight while they’re all here.” After a pause, she added, “One of our attorneys is a Jew. We have very close friends that are Jewish and rabbis and we also fellowship with them.”
Robert Cay, a 73-year-old veteran from Enterprise, Alabama, said after the Moore event that it’s about “our existence and the fate of the country.” He said that Tuesday’s vote “means that we’re going to help as much as we can to help Trump with his agenda and to keep things moving forward.”
Three polls released Monday showed how hard the outcome is to predict: An Emerson College poll found Moore up by nine percentage points, a Fox News poll showed Jones up by 10 points and a Monmouth University poll showed the candidates tied with 46 percent each.
Spencer Kimball, pollster at Emerson University, said the difference between his and Fox’s polls came down to estimates about what the electorate will look like on Tuesday.
“Because it’s a special election, does a certain demographic turn out disproportionately than how they normally turn out?” Kimball said.
Moore latched on to the anti-establishment, populist message that helped Trump win the White House. It helped him win a primary run-off against the candidate backed by Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other senior GOP officeholders.
The same themes — particularly disdain for outside elites — are central in his race against Jones and in his response to the allegations of sexual misconduct. One recent fundraising email is titled “Defeat the Elite” with pictures of Republicans, Democrats and the logos of national news organizations including CNN and the Washington Post.
Jones initially kept national Democratic Party figures at arms length to avoid feeding resentment among moderate Republicans. In recent weeks the outside help has been pouring in.
Former President Barack Obama and former Vice President Joe Biden recorded phone calls to be blasted out to potential Jones voters. In the weekend leading up to the election, Jones campaigned with prominent black politicians.