MONTGOMERY, Ala. — In a stunning victory aided by scandal, Democrat Doug Jones won Alabama’s special Senate election on Tuesday, beating back history, an embattled Republican opponent and President Donald Trump, who urgently endorsed GOP rebel Roy Moore despite a litany of sexual misconduct allegations.
It was the first Democratic Senate victory in a quarter-century in Alabama, one of the reddest of red states, and proved anew that party loyalty is anything but sure in the age of Trump. It was a major embarrassment for the president and a fresh wound for the nation’s already divided Republican Party.
The victory by Jones, a former U.S. attorney best known for prosecuting two Ku Klux Klansmen responsible for Birmingham’s infamous 1963 church bombing, narrows the GOP advantage in the U.S. Senate to 51-49. That imperils already-uncertain Republican tax, budget and health proposals and injects tremendous energy into the Democratic Party’s early push to reclaim House and Senate majorities in 2018.
Still, many Washington Republicans viewed the defeat of Moore as perhaps the best outcome for the party nationally despite the short-term sting. The fiery Christian conservative’s positions have alienated women, racial minorities, gays and Muslims — in addition to the multiple allegations that he was guilty of sexual misconduct with teens, one only 14, when he was in his 30s.
A number of Republicans declined to support him, including Alabama’s long-serving Sen. Richard Shelby. But Trump lent his name and the national GOP’s resources to Moore’s campaign in recent days.
Had Moore won, the GOP would have been saddled with a colleague accused of sordid conduct as Republicans nationwide struggle with Trump’s historically low popularity. Senate leaders had promised that Moore would have faced an immediate ethics investigation.
Jones takes over the seat previously held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The term expires in January of 2021.
Republicans on Capitol Hill have expressed hopes of scheduling a vote on their tax legislation before Jones is sworn in, but lawmakers are still struggling to devise a compromise bill to bridge the divide between the House and Senate legislation that can win majority support in both chambers.
The Republican loss also gives Democrats a clearer path to a Senate majority in 2018 — albeit a narrow one — in an election cycle where Democrats are far more optimistic about seizing control of the House of Representatives.
Ultimately, Tuesday’s contest came down to which side better motivated its supporters to vote. Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill said turnout likely would not exceed 25 per cent of registered voters.
Jones successfully fought to cobble together an unlikely coalition of African-Americans, liberal whites and moderate Republicans.
“This is an important time in Alabama’s history, and we feel very confident where we are and how this is going to turn out,” the Democrat said after casting his ballot Tuesday.
On the ground in Alabama on Tuesday, those who stood in line to cast their ballots were far more focused on the candidates than the broader political fallout.
Teresa Brown, a 53-year-old administrative assistant, said she preferred Jones, in part, because he would be better positioned to work across party lines. “We don’t need a pedophile in there,” Brown added.
She was among more than two dozen people queued up in the chilly morning air at Legion Field, a predominantly black precinct in Birmingham, to cast their ballots. Al Bright, 63, who does refrigeration repair, said he voted for Moore.
“Regardless of the allegations against him, I believe he is an honourable man,” Bright said.
Mary Multrie, 69, who works in a children’s hospital, disagreed.
“He’s not a truthful man,” 69-year-old Mary Multrie said of Moore. Multrie wasn’t influenced by accusations of sexual misconduct against Moore, she said, because she already did not like him. “He talks about God, but you don’t see God in his actions.”
Moore, who largely avoided public events in the final weeks of the race and spent far less money on advertising than his opponent, bet big — and lost — on the state’s traditional Republican leanings and the strength of his passionate evangelical Christian supporters.
He sidestepped questions about sexual misconduct as he arrived at his polling place on horseback.
Democrats were not supposed to have a chance in Alabama, one of the most Republican-leaning states in the nation. Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton here by nearly 28 points just 13 months ago. Yet Moore had political baggage that repelled some moderate Republicans even before allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced.
Virtually the entire Republican establishment, Trump included, supported Moore’s primary opponent, Sen. Luther Strange in September. Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, was one of the only early high-profile Moore backers.
Moore was removed from his position as state Supreme Court chief justice the first time after he refused to remove a boulder-sized Ten Commandments monument at the state court building. The second time, he was permanently suspended for urging state probate judges to refuse marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
In his final pitch before polls opened across the state, 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.”