DOTHAN, Ala. — Maybe Roy Moore really did pursue teenage girls, Mike Filo figures, and maybe he didn’t, but no court has found him guilty, and Filo, a retired firefighter and steady Republican, didn’t want to vote against someone just because of unproven allegations.
So on Tuesday, Filo, 62, cast his ballot for Moore, saying that “I don’t believe in abortion and other things. I know people say it’s a woman’s right, but I’ve seen fetuses, in the fire department. I’m not saying no one else is wrong — I’m just saying what I believe.”
Filo said he voted for Moore because he was the antiabortion candidate, but, he added, he was also really motivated by anger over the outside forces that he believed were pushing Alabama voters to reject Moore because of allegations that he wooed teenage girls when he was in his 30s.
In the annals of the culture wars, abortion has long been a clear marker, an issue that packs an emotional wallop and lets both sides see themselves as occupying the moral high ground. But Tuesday’s election added a new level of complexity, pitting antiabortion supporters of Moore against those who believed that accusations of sexual misconduct disqualified him from elective office.
“In both cases, it’s about women’s sexuality, the sexual revolution and feminism,” said Leslie Reagan, a historian of the abortion battles who teaches at the University of Illinois. For both Moore voters and supporters of Democrat Doug Jones, abortion became a useful shorthand, a way to place themselves on one or the other side of a national clash in world views.
“Abortion is a galvanizing issue in Alabama,” said Matt Barber, general counsel of Christian Civil Rights Watch, a conservative legal group, and a former dean at Liberty University. “President Obama said the social issues were so ’90s, but in flyover country, the desire not to be complicit in abortion homicide remains one of the top concerns.”
Barber said abortion brings Trump voters together because it signals a moral standard for people who believe that “people in government, the media, academia, entertainment and the halls of Congress are trying to re-create America in their secular, Euro-socialist image. The nation is divided between two incompatible worldviews. We don’t see minds being changed. There is no political solution. The only solution is a spiritual one, a Christian revival.”
The Moore campaign sought to capitalize on the issue, arguing in TV ads and speeches that Jones favored “full-term abortions.” Jones opened himself up to the charge in a September TV appearance in which he said he supported “late-term abortions . . . if pregnancy threatens the health of the mother.” Jones subsequently said he opposed such procedures.
At a Moore rally in Midland City on the eve of the vote, Jack Reynolds, a 63-year-old who lives on a farm in Alabama’s southeast corner, said he stuck with the Republican because “he’s defending . . . our core values about love of life.” Reynolds said he doesn’t expect abortion to become illegal again, but “I just love the unborn far too much to ever vote for a national Democrat.”
Before the election, most Alabama voters did not put abortion atop their list of defining issues, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll in late November. The survey found that 41 percent of voters thought a candidate’s views on health care were most important, followed by moral conduct at 26 percent. Abortion trailed well behind at 14 percent.
But the Moore campaign took advantage of the emotional power of an issue that Drew Halfmann, a sociologist at the University of California at Davis who focuses on the politics of abortion, said connects with voters because “it’s about family, life and death, the place of women in society.”
In this election, making abortion an issue gave conservative voters something to balance against the allegations against Moore. Republicans could respond to Democrats who wondered how voters could back someone accused of pursuing teenagers when he was in his 30s by wondering how they could back someone who favors abortion rights.
Abortion remains one of the few issues that most voters call an absolute litmus test; that is, along with health care, same-sex marriage and immigration, abortion is a rare issue on which a majority of voters say they could not bring themselves to vote for a candidate who disagrees with them.
As Americans, even in the Deep South, become more secular, Christian conservatives, feeling disrespected or excluded from the mainstream, become more likely to coalesce around abortion as a rallying cry. Southerners have abortions at about the same rate as women in the rest of the country, and southerners have rejected some efforts to move toward a hard ban on the procedure.
In 2011, Mississippi voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have declared that life begins at fertilization. Planned Parenthood and medical societies argued that such a declaration would undermine access to infertility treatments.
“There’s a lot more going on in the South than people may think,” Reagan said.
The nation’s divide over abortion has remained relatively stable through recent decades. Support for the idea that abortions should be legally available to women for any reason has remained within a few points of 40 percent of Americans for more than 30 years, and support for keeping abortion legal if a woman’s health is seriously endangered has remained above 80 percent for nearly half a century, according to the General Social Survey, which has studied Americans’ perspectives since 1972.
But there’s been no such stability when it comes to how attitudes on abortion line up with Americans’ political affiliation. From the late 1970s through the early 1980s, Democrats and Republicans were equally likely to say they supported women’s rights to an abortion for any cause. It was only in 1998 that the percentage of Republicans supporting abortion rights collapsed, remaining at or below 30 percent ever since. And it wasn’t until this decade that a majority of Democrats embraced that stand.
From the start of the abortion reform movement in the 1960s until at least Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign, many Republicans favored abortion rights, seeing legalized abortion as an expression of individual rights and therefore a traditionally GOP issue, said Stacie Taranto, a historian at Ramapo University who studies the abortion debate.
“Abortion and family values weren’t political issues until the modern women’s movement made the personal political,” she said.
Only in the 1980s did a conservative backlash over feminism persuade many GOP politicians that there was a strategic advantage to joining abortion and family values to law and order and anti-Communist sentiment as core elements of what it meant to be a Republican.
“In the ’70s, the focus on abortion and homosexuality brought together groups that previously despised each other — evangelicals, Mormons and Catholics,” Leslie Reagan said.
Fisher reported from Washington. Scott Clement contributed to this report.