Alabama’s Senate race is too close to callOn December 11, 2017 by Zander
“I DIDN’T even come out of the closet as a Democrat until the primary,” says Molly Clark, a genial retired Presbyterian minister working to get out the vote for Doug Jones (pictured left), the Democrat in Alabama running for a Senate seat on December 12th. She still has not told people in her church. Such fears are not uncommon. One woman Ms Clark meets says she was scared of putting a Doug Jones sign in her yard on a quiet cul-de-sac in Calera, a small but growing exurb of Birmingham. “But people kept whispering, ‘I love your sign.’ They could see I’m just a normal mom, not a scary hippie.”
Alabama, like the rest of the Deep South, is solidly Republican: no Democrat has won a state-wide race in more than a decade. Last year Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton there by 28 points. The Alabama Democratic Party is dysfunctional and deeply riven, its infrastructure almost non-existent. In the Senate race in 2014 Democrats did not even field a candidate; Jeff Sessions, now Mr Trump’s attorney-general, won with 97.3% of the vote.
But the contest to fill Mr Sessions’s seat is different, mainly because Roy Moore (pictured right) won the Republican primary. Mr Moore was elected chief justice of Alabama twice and removed twice, both times for flouting federal law. He believes homosexuality should be illegal, Muslims should be barred from serving in Congress, America was last great “when families were united, even though we had slavery” and that the constitution exists to foster Christianity. Eight women have recently accused him of offences ranging from sexual harassment to assault decades ago (most were teenagers at the time).
When those allegations emerged, numerous Republicans called on Mr Moore to drop out of the race. Mr Trump kept him at arm’s length. But Mr Trump has since moved from caution to tactical approval—better Mr Moore, with all his flaws, than a Democrat—to full-throated endorsement. Mr Trump held a rally on Alabama’s border on December 8th, and has recorded robocalls urging people to vote for Mr Moore. The party followed suit. Richard Shelby, Alabama’s senior senator, is a notable exception: on December 10th he said, “I couldn’t vote for Roy Moore…the state of Alabama deserves better”. By that afternoon the Jones campaign had cut two commercials from those comments. And Jeff Flake, a Republican senator who has vocally opposed Mr Trump, is another. He donated to Mr Jones’s campaign, posting a picture of a check with “Country Over Party” written on the subject line. But by and large congressional Republicans seem to feel that embracing an alleged child molester is an acceptable price to pay for getting Mr Trump’s tax cuts passed.
Mr Moore’s manifest unfitness for office has given Democrats their best chance in a generation to win an Alabama Senate seat. Mr Jones, a first-time candidate, has a genial, understated demeanour and an enviable CV. Born to a blue-collar family, he became a federal prosecutor, and in the early 2000s successfully convicted two Klansmen for killing four young girls in an infamous church bombing nearly 40 years earlier. But he is a Democrat in the Deep South, where voters have been moving away from the party since Lyndon Johnson signed civil-rights legislation in the mid-1960s. For him to win, three things have to happen.
First, African-American voter turnout has to be strong. Black voters generally comprise around one-fourth of Alabama’s electorate; if that share is even slightly higher, Mr Jones may come out ahead. But Alabama has a strict voter ID law, which some fear could depress black turnout. After a rally at Alabama State University on December 11th, Hank Sanders, a prominent black state senator, said that the Jones campaign “had been slower than usual to energise the African-American community.” The campaign has been trying to make up for lost time; John Lewis, Cory Booker and Deval Patrick—prominent African-American politicians from out of state—have all been in Alabama this weekend holding rallies with Mr Jones.
Second, some business conservatives need to hold their noses and switch votes. To that end, Mr Jones has played on the business community’s wariness of Mr Moore, and the effect his victory could have on the state’s reputation. The four big carmakers who have built plants in Alabama will not up sticks, but the bright young Alabamans thronging bars and restaurants in Birmingham’s newly revitalised downtown may decide a better future lies elsewhere. “I want to sit down at a table with CEOs and talk about coming to Alabama,” said Mr Jones at the rally on December 10th. “I want to tell them, ‘You will be welcome in Alabama.’ Can you imagine Roy Moore saying that?”
Third, a sizable share of white evangelicals must either stay home or write in another candidate (they will not vote for the openly pro-choice Mr Jones). That may prove the trickiest obstacle. White evangelicals are Mr Moore’s base, and he has geared his campaign entirely toward them, eschewing public appearances, debates and questions from the mainstream media. White evangelicals usually account for at least half of the state’s voters, and according to a recent poll 77% of them back Mr Moore. If they come out in droves, Mr Jones is in for a rough Tuesday.
But Mr Moore’s victory may prove a bigger headache for Republicans than a loss. Mr Moore will be no more beholden to Republicans than Mr Trump was when he took office; his campaign mailers have targeted Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, as much as they have Mr Jones. His victory will embolden Steve Bannon, Mr Trump’s erstwhile advisor and campaign architect, who backs Mr Moore and is waging a “season of war” against the Republican establishment by supporting primary challengers to senators he deems disloyal to Mr Trump. A rump Bannonite wing could make the Senate’s Republican caucus as dysfunctional as the House’s.
Perhaps most importantly, Mr Moore’s victory will let Democrats draw a tidy contrast. If he wins, just weeks after Democrats evicted two alleged sexual harassers from Congress (John Conyers and Al Franken), Republicans will welcome one. Democrats will make him the running mate of every Republican office-seeker next year.