BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Depending on who is making the case, Alabama’s special Senate election Tuesday is about either continuing the “Trump miracle” in Washington or allowing “decency” to prevail back home.
At the center is Roy Moore — “Judge Moore,” to his supporters. The 70-year-old Republican was twice ousted as state Supreme Court chief justice after flouting federal law, and now he’s attempting a political resurrection amid accusations of sexual misconduct with teenage girls when he was in his 30s.
In Moore’s path is Democrat Doug Jones, 63, a former U.S. attorney best known for prosecuting two Ku Klux Klansmen who killed four black girls in a 1963 church bombing.
More than two dozen people stood in line in the chilly morning air early Tuesday morning at Legion Field, a predominantly black precinct in Birmingham, to cast their ballots in a stadium office. Blue-tinted posters of college football players and cheerleaders lined one wall, and about 20 Doug Jones posters were planted near the parking lot.
“I do not want to see Roy Moore go in there. We don’t need a pedophile in there,” said Teresa Brown, 53, an administrative assistant at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who was voting at Legion Field. “We need someone that’s going to represent the state of Alabama, work across party lines … just be there for all the people, not just a select few of the people.”
The winner will take the seat previously held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Republicans hold a narrow 52-48 Senate majority. A routine election in Republican-dominated Alabama wouldn’t be expected to alter that balance, because Alabamians haven’t sent a Democrat to the upper chamber of Congress since 1992. President Donald Trump notched a 28-point win here in 2016 and remains popular in the state.
But Moore’s baggage leaves the outcome enough in doubt that both Trump and his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, have weighed in with last-minute robocalls trying to sway voters.
The intensity also has spawned a steady stream of fake news stories that fill social media feeds of interested people in Alabama and beyond. An Associated Press analysis, in cooperation with Facebook, counted as many as 200 false or misleading reports heading into the weekend. One website claimed one of the women who have accused Moore of sexual misconduct had recanted. She did not. Meanwhile, Moore’s detractors took to social media to claim he had written in a 2011 textbook that women shouldn’t hold elected office. He didn’t.
In his final pitch before polls opened across the state at 7 a.m. CST Tuesday, Jones called the choice a “crossroads” and asked that “decency” prevail.
“We’ve had this history in the past, going down the road that … has not been productive,” Jones said. “We’ve lagged behind in industry. We’ve lagged behind in education. We’ve lagged behind in health care. It’s time we take the road that’s going to get us on the path to progress.”
At his own election eve rally, Moore again denied all the allegations, calling them “disgusting” and offering voters a clear measure: “If you don’t believe in my character, don’t vote for me.” Earlier in the day, Moore cast himself as the victim. “It’s just been hard, a hard campaign,” he said.
For Alabama, the outcome could be defining.
Democrats and moderate Republicans see an opportunity to reject a politician who is already regular fodder for late-night television and enough of a curiosity that Chinese leader Xi Jinping paused a presidential meeting in Beijing recently to ask Trump through an interpreter, “Who is Roy Moore?”
Alabama’s senior senator, Richard Shelby, confirmed publicly that he wrote in a “distinguished Alabama Republican” rather than vote for Moore.
Many Republicans, however, see an opportunity to defend the state’s conservative, evangelical bent in the face of unfair liberal criticism while delivering another victory for Trump and sending an anti-establishment senator into a federal government that has been reflexively unpopular among Alabama majorities for generations.
Trump’s campaign architect and former White House adviser Steve Bannon told Moore supporters Monday evening that the race is a “national election” that will determine whether the “Trump miracle” continues. Moore says he is aligned with the president and he makes similar arguments to Trump, blasting “the elite” in the “swamp” of Washington, D.C.
For Jones to win, he must build an atypical coalition, maximizing turnout among African-American voters and white liberals who often don’t combine for more than 40 percent of the electorate, while coaxing votes from enough white Republicans who can’t pull the lever for Moore.
One of Jones’ celebrity backers framed the choice as being much less complicated.
“I love Alabama,” said Leeds native and former NBA basketball star Charles Barkley, “but at some point we’ve got to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘We’re not a bunch of damn idiots.'”
Polls will close at 7 p.m. CST.
Chandler reported from Midland City, Alabama. Associated Press Writer Emily Wagster Pettus contributed from Birmingham, Alabama.