BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards (D) once bragged that the only way he’d lose reelection is if he was caught with “a dead girl or a live boy.” Roy Moore might be about to do him one better.
Moore has been accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women, most of whom were teenagers at the time. Top national Republicans have demanded he leave the Alabama Senate race, refused to support his campaign and threatened him with a Senate Ethics Committee investigation on the day he’s sworn in. He’s spent the final week of his hotly contested campaign in hiding, with no public events since last Tuesday. His TV ads have the production quality of local infomercials. His campaign has been badly outspent by Doug Jones, his Democratic opponent. His potential future colleague, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) slammed Moore on national television on Sunday, saying “Alabama deserves better.”
Yet Moore has crept back into the lead in public and private polls — and it’s difficult to find anyone in the state outside of Jones’ surrogates, including Moore’s harshest critics, who think he’s likely to lose.
“I’m not super confident,”Laura Hamilton, a former Madison County circuit court judge volunteering at Jones’ Huntsville office on Thursday told TPM.
Hamilton said she was “much more nervous now” than she had been a few weeks earlier.
“We’re going to keep working because you never know, you just never know, and Doug is just too great a candidate to let it go,” she said.
She, and the many other Jones volunteers TPM talked to across the state the last few days who expressed pessimism about the race’s outcome, have reason to be concerned.
Jones had shot to a lead in public and private polls before Thanksgiving, in the wake of the accusations against Moore of sexual misconduct from nine women, including one who said he sexually assaulted her when she was 16 and he was a deputy district attorney in his early ’30s, and another who said he initiated a sexual encounter with her when she was just 14 years old.
But Moore has come back and currently holds a lead slightly outside the margin of error in most recent public polls. Moore’s own internal survey had him up by 8 points over the weekend, according to two sources familiar with the numbers.
Democrats believe the race is a much closer contest, with Moore and Jones essentially tied. While it’s impossible to confidently predict a turnout in an oddly timed December election where one candidate is so fatally flawed and turnout levels amongst key groups including African Americans is a mystery, Republicans clearly feel more confident.
The race isn’t over yet, but if Moore wins it will be in spite of himself.
The candidate has been in hiding for the last week, taking a full six days off between a Tuesday rally with former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and another one with Bannon scheduled for Monday night. He hasn’t taken questions from any news outlets who aren’t friendly to his candidacy since the scandal blew up more than a month ago.
Moore wasn’t even in the state for part of the final week. A source close to his campaign confirmed to TPM that he flew to Philadelphia to see his son play in the Army-Navy football game on Saturday, and he wasn’t at his own church Sunday morning. His thinly staffed campaign had almost no visible presence around the state past a few yard signs along the highway and scattered TV ads.
“I know you’re excited because I’m the only candidate talking to you,” Jones said mockingly of Moore during a quick scrum with reporters Sunday in Birmingham. “What kind of public servant hides?”
While Moore has gone to ground, Jones has been almost everywhere in the state in the past week. His campaign says it’s made more than 1 million phone calls, hit more than 100,000 doors and held almost 250 events in the race. In the last weekend alone he held rallies across the state with Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D), Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL) and other prominent African American politicians, as well as a pair of concerts from indie-country darlings Jason Isbell and Shovels & Rope.
The Jones surrogates pushed to remind voters it’s not just Moore’s alleged sexual history that should give them pause — it’s his controversial views on race and his hostility towards gay people and non-Christians.
“It’s going to be a turnout game,” Sewell told TPM in Selma. “It’s a great juxtaposition. You have a person who’s going to be fighting for equal justice for everyone and someone who really stands for divisiveness and has always stood for divisiveness.”
But it’s still Alabama — one of the most racially polarized and conservative states in the country. No Democrat has won statewide here in more than a decade, and the more national “elites” criticize what Alabamians are doing, the more stubbornly many voters resist being told what to do.
Moore has also had some help. President Trump has painted the race’s outcome as crucial for his presidency, and parachuted in for a rally in one of Alabama’s larger media markets.
“We need somebody in that Senate seat who will vote for our Make America Great Again agenda,” he said to cheers at a rally Friday just over the border in Pensacola, Florida. “We want jobs, jobs, jobs. So get out and vote for Roy Moore.”
Trump says the same in a robocall for Moore aimed at turning out the GOP base. The Republican National Committee has spent a total of $170,000 to boost Moore’s chances in the last week, the pro-Trump outside group America First Action dropped more than $1 million in the same stretch, and the National Rifle Association sent around mailers to its members pushing them to back Moore as well.
That all matters — as does the general dismissal of the accusers by many Republicans, who claim the women are likely lying and even if they’re telling the truth that it’s not that big of a deal.
Helping their argument was accuser Beverly Young Nelson’s admission Friday that she’d added a date and location to what she says is Moore’s inscription in her yearbook. Nelson has said Moore sexually assaulted her when she was 16, one of the most serious allegations against him.
Jeana Boggs, a longtime Moore friend and campaign volunteer who attended Trump’s Pensacola rally on Friday, told TPM that she didn’t believe the two women accusing Moore of his worst actions — and if the rest are telling the truth, what of it?
“He did nothing illegal. The age of consent was 16, and our parents, my sister was set up when she was 16 with a 30-year-old guy, and I worked in a dry cleaners when I was 15 or 16 years old and I dated the guy who owned the service station next door and he was in his 30s. Girls would brag about it, especially if the guy had an education, a career and was good looking,” she told TPM Sunday. “The other women said he was a perfect gentleman, it was only those two, and their statements have been debunked.”
Boggs said that “Trump’s endorsement and the yearbook fiasco” had handed Moore a comfortable lead in the race.
Her dismissiveness was echoed by many other Republicans across the state — though there were clear gender, educational and generational divides in how people viewed the accusations against Moore.
Many older Republican women didn’t believe the accusers or shrugged off the allegations, while a number of younger women saw things very differently and were either voting for Jones or staying home. Most older Republican men were sticking with Moore, but some younger ones said they couldn’t bring themselves to vote for either candidate.
The biggest question for Jones is black turnout. Jones’ campaign has put a huge effort into mobilizing black voters, as has a local outside group which has “Vote or Die” signs all over the state.
While anecdotal information is inherently limited, most African American voters TPM talked to from Huntsville to Selma to Montgomery had heard a ton about the race from TV, said they’d been contacted by Jones’s campaign or allies, and planned to vote. While they all knew a lot more about Moore than Jones, many mentioned Jones’ work prosecuting KKK members in the notorious civil rights-era bombing of a black church in Birmingham.
Tabitha Austin, an African American woman, told TPM as she grabbed lunch at Lannie’s barbecue in Selma she’d heard about the race “All day, every day” on TV, and was “absolutely” voting, calling Moore a “donkey.” Others expressed similar views.
Jones’ allies admit they need almost everything to go right on Tuesday to pull off what would still be a stunning upset in deep-red Alabama. But they’re holding out hope.
“I recognize that it’s not only uphill but up-mountain,” Alabama state Rep. Hank Sanders (D) told TPM in Montgomery. “But I think we’re going to be mountain-climbing.”
Correction: This story originally misidentified Alabama state Rep. Hank Sanders (D). We regret the error.