Cameron Joseph

Cameron Joseph is Talking Points Memo's senior political correspondent based in Washington, D.C. He covers Capitol Hill, the White House and the permanent campaign. Previous publications include the New York Daily News, Mashable, The Hill and National Journal. He grew up near Chicago and is an irrationally passionate Cubs fan.

Articles by Cameron

Vulnerable Republicans on both coasts – and a few places in between – must be pulling out their hair after the Trump administration’s latest moves on marijuana and offshore drilling.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced a plan to open up vast tracts of both the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines for offshore oil and gas drilling leases on Thursday afternoon, just hours after Attorney General Jeff Sessions unleashed federal prosecutors to crack down in states that have legalized marijuana, throwing eight states’ legal regimes into chaos.

Both moves risk further alienating swing voters in coastal states as well as those states that have legalized marijuana or implemented medical marijuana programs. And while neither may be an election-defining national issue, they carry a one-two punch to GOP lawmakers from Southern California to Washington and Florida to New Jersey to Maine who are hoping to hang onto their House seats and represent college educated, traditionally Republican voters already turned off by Trump and worried about the impact of the GOP tax law.

The moves also could further motivate millennial voters to turn out for Democrats. Polls show that nearly two thirds of voters now support legalized marijuana, a huge spike in recent years — and those numbers are much higher with younger voters.

“Coastal Republicans were already having a tough time dealing with constituents who were pissed off about the tax bill,” former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Political Director Ian Russell told TPM. “It’s like they’re handpicking issues they’re not winning on. It’s bizarre.”

The pair of decisions had Democrats banding together in fury — joined by some swing-state Republicans, a telling sign heading into a rough midterm.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), a longtime Trump ally and possible Senate candidate in a state where the Deepwater Horizon oil spill isn’t so distant a memory, made a rare break with the Trump administration following Zinke’s announcement.

In a statement, Scott said he opposed the decision and demanded a meeting with Zinke to “remove Florida from consideration” for more offshore drilling.

He wasn’t alone — Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL), a swing-district Republican from coastal Florida, called Zinke’s proposal “extremely alarming and unacceptable” in a statement.

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee who represents one of the eight states that has legalized pot sales, was even harsher in his response to Sessions, threatening to hold up all Department of Justice nominees until the policy is reversed.

Other GOP senators from states with legal pot also criticized the move. But Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV), facing a tough primary as well as reelection challenge, put out an ambivalent statement that could further complicate his 2018 chances — and his Democratic opponent, Rep. Jackie Rosen (D-NV), was quick to pounce.

Offshore drilling could hurt Republicans hoping to hang onto House seats in Washington, California, Florida, Virginia, New Jersey, and even Maine and Texas. And Sessions’ move to crack down on legal pot hurts them in Maine, Colorado and Nevada, states that have legalized marijuana  sales and have competitive House races.

But nowhere do those dual blows hit harder for Republicans than in California, a state that’s just days into having legalized marijuana after passing a referendum by a double-digit margin last fall and that has a long history of opposition to oil drilling ever since the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill that helped create the environmental movement.

“California voters have spoken in terms of where they stand on this issue and if you look at public polling the American public is also speaking. This guy has not only mis-prioritized the limited resources of the department, he is frankly out of sync with where the vast majority of Californians are and I would suggest even most Americans are,” Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) told TPM of Sessions’ move to upend states’ rights on marijuana regulation.

California Republicans are defending more than a half-dozen vulnerable members, many of them in districts on or near the coast in Orange County, and they were already facing tough races given the state’s repulsion to Trump.

“I definitely would not want to be a California Republican House member right now,” Jack Pitney, a former Republican congressional staffer who teaches at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California, told TPM. “If Trump’s approval rating could go any lower in California, it will.”

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Republicans appear to have held onto Virginia’s House of Delegates by the skin of their teeth on Thursday after winning an arbitrary tie-breaker for a race that was ended in a tie vote.

The Virginia State Board of Elections held a random drawing of two names from a bowl, and its head pulled Republican David Yancey’s name.

That gives the GOP a narrow 51-49 majority in the state House of Delegates, barring legal challenges, after a recount left an astounding tie in the election at 11,608 votes apiece and the chamber hanging in the balance.

“This election will certainly be a reminder for everybody that every vote counts,” Virginia state Board of Elections Chairman James Alcorn said before drawing the name.

That random drawing means Yancey will likely keep his seat, barring legal challenges, after a wild election and recount with the state’s lower chamber on the line. He’d held a narrow lead on election night last November, but after a December recount Democrat Shelly Simonds appeared to win the race by a single vote, and Yancey conceded.

That was overturned the very next day when a three-judge court ruled a ballot that had previously been thrown out should be awarded to Yancey, ending the race in a tie.

Simonds is allowed by law to request a second recount, and is expected to do so, meaning the seat will remain vacant when the House of Delegates begins its session next week. But that still leaves the GOP with a temporary 50-49 edge when the chamber votes on its speaker, giving them control of the chamber for the next two years and an advantage on the chamber’s committees.

That could have huge ramifications for Democrats’ longstanding push to expand Medicaid in the state, a top policy priority that may now be harder to accomplish.

Simonds didn’t concede after the result, saying she’d let her supporters know of “any next steps” while highlighting Medicaid expansion.

“There are nearly 400,000 Virginians who have been denied access to affordable health care through Medicaid expansion. I hope our lawmakers in the House of Delegates do not leave their fate to a game of chance,” she said.

Heading into election day, not even the most optimistic Democrats thought they had any shot at the chamber. The GOP held a 66-34 margin in a map that had been gerrymandered in their favor in the swing state. But Governor-elect Ralph Northam’s (D) blowout victory helped carry a number of surprising winners across the finish line. But Yancey’s victory leaves them just short of forcing shared control of the chamber, even if Simonds eventually wins legal challenges and gains the seat.

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Steve Bannon rode President Trump to the top of the political mountain — and Trump just tossed him off the edge into thin air.

In four brutal paragraphs attributed to the president himself, the White House eviscerated its former chief strategist with a vitriol unusual even for Trump.

The full statement is worth reading and rereading — it’s copied in full at the end of this post. But the gist is that Bannon is a mentally unstable, selfish, destructive bit player in Trumpland. It dismisses Bannon’s claim to have masterminded Trump’s 2016 victory (vastly understating his role on the campaign even as it correctly knocks down his self-aggrandizement), and erases much of the reflective power that Bannon still held from his stint as a top Trump campaign adviser and his White House chief strategist.

Bannon had settled back in at his Breitbart media empire after being forced out of the White House late last summer, and was using that website, nascent efforts at a super-PAC funded by the billionaire Mercer family, and a direct line to Trump to keep his reflected glory glowing bright.

Trump stuck by Bannon even after he was fired last summer, refusing to distance himself from his website’s alt-right views. But enough was apparently enough after Bannon reportedly accused Donald Trump Jr. of being “treasonous” for setting up a meeting with a Russian envoy during the campaign, according to excerpts from a new book published Wednesday.

Bannon had helped Roy Moore win the Alabama Senate GOP primary, though his impact in that race has been seriously overstated, and the blame establishment Republicans piled on him for Moore’s general election loss has been overdone as well. He had grand, if completely unrealistic, plans to force primary challenges against almost every sitting GOP senator next year. But without the Trump brand and support from others in his orbit it’s unclear whether he’ll even be able to maintain the snake-oil sales he’d been conjuring up until now.

The level at which Breitbart and Bannon depend on Trump was displayed in the site’s awkward handling of the president’s attacks on its leader. The site initially ignored Bannon’s reported comments — but finally posted both Trump’s attacks and Bannon’s alleged comments in un-bylined stories that led the website Wednesday afternoon.

Bannon may survive this yet.

The way the statement is written it sounds a lot more like it was crafted by an aide than by Trump himself, leaving the chance that the president doesn’t stick by his staff’s attempt to freeze out Bannon. And even without Trump, if Bannon can stay in the good graces of his Mercer moneymen he’ll be able to keep funding his pet projects and making the money that helped buy his Capitol Hill mansion.

We’ve seen Trump furiously dump other aides in the past only to bring them back — former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and campaign aide David Bossie have very much returned to his good graces these days, and Jeff Sessions is still attorney general in spite of Trump’s fury. The worse things get for Trump, the more likely he’ll seek outside advice — and may turn back to Bannon.

“Trump is like a child. He has a favorite toy, he gets bored with it and puts it on the shelf, and eventually he goes back to playing with it,” Kurt Bardella, a former GOP consultant and spokesman for Breitbart who has left the party and disavowed his old employer, told TPM.  “What we saw today was Trump having a tantrum. If he’ll stick to this in the long run, history tells us he probably won’t.”

Bardella also argued that even if the schism holds, Bannon may outlast Trump and his damaged presidency.

“Either Bannon will have successfully put himself on an island all by himself with no allies no fooling and no support and this is the beginning of the end, or the Trump presidency will face a large degree of political and legal scrutiny that’ll be the beginning of the end and he’ll outlast them,” he said.

But if Bannon’s exile holds, it’s unclear if he can recover.

Under Bannon’s leadership, Breitbart transformed from a catch-all for a trollish, rabble-rousing home for conservatives of many stripes into a weaponized news site aimed at boosting Trump and a home for the racist alt-right. When Lewandowski allegedly assaulted one of Breitbart’s own reporters, it was that reporter who lost her job — not Lewandowski.

Many of the website’s readers have their first loyalty to Trump these days, not Bannon. With this schism opening up wide, it’s hard to see who will be left to read it — or whether his benefactors will keep funding Bannon’s projects. That had the president’s own son gloating in the wake of Bannon’s brutalization.

Trump’s full statement:

Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my Presidency. When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind. Steve was a staffer who worked for me after I had already won the nomination by defeating seventeen candidates, often described as the most talented field ever assembled in the Republican party.

Now that he is on his own, Steve is learning that winning isn’t as easy as I make it look. Steve had very little to do with our historic victory, which was delivered by the forgotten men and women of this country. Yet Steve had everything to do with the loss of a Senate seat in Alabama held for more than thirty years by Republicans. Steve doesn’t represent my base—he’s only in it for himself. 

Steve pretends to be at war with the media, which he calls the opposition party, yet he spent his time at the White House leaking false information to the media to make himself seem far more important than he was. It is the only thing he does well. Steve was rarely in a one-on-one meeting with me and only pretends to have had influence to fool a few people with no access and no clue, whom he helped write phony books. 

We have many great Republican members of Congress and candidates who are very supportive of the Make America Great Again agenda. Like me, they love the United States of America and are helping to finally take our country back and build it up, rather than simply seeking to burn it all down.

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Second time’s the charm.

The House passed a sweeping tax bill once again on Wednesday, taking a mulligan one day after Senate rules forced the other chamber to make minor changes to the law and sending the package of massive corporate tax cuts to President Trump for his signature after an embarrassing misstep.

The House passed the bill by a 224-201 margin on a mostly party-line vote, after the Senate passed it by a 51-48 margin along party lines in the predawn hours Wednesday.

Trump will hold a “bill passage event” later Wednesday afternoon to celebrate it clearing Congress, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday, rather than the normal bill signing ceremony, because of the congressional glitch.

Trump called the bill “historic” and described it as and “incredible Christmas gift for hardworking Americans” while touting the corporate tax cuts at a White House event earlier on Wednesday.

The revote became necessary when Republicans were forced to remove a few provisions of the law Wednesday afternoon that didn’t comply with reconciliation rules that allowed Republicans to pass it with a simple majority in the Senate, shortly after it initially passed the House. The do-over was the latest sign of how rushed Republicans were in ramming through a plan with massive corporate tax cuts and individual cuts that analysis shows will disproportionately benefit wealthier Americans while adding almost $1.5 trillion to the federal deficit over the next decade.

“A revote within less than 24 hours of original passage — this proves that this bill is rotten to its core,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley (D-NY) said during House floor debate before the vote.

House Ways & Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-TX) celebrated the bill as the first “real tax reform” in decades as the House went to revote, a move that sent the bill to the president’s desk after the Senate passed the latest version late Tuesday night.

According to the Tax Policy Center, a left-leaning think tank, fully 83 percent of the bill’s benefits will accrue to the top 1 percent of Americans in the next decade.

The bill also repeals the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate and opens up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling — two long sought-after achievements for Republicans, who saw their broader Obamacare repeal efforts fall short this summer.

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Republicans’ almost-passed tax bill could turn their 2018 headache in the suburbs into a migraine.

Their tax plan, which is broadly unpopular with Americans, could prove particularly toxic in the wealthier suburban enclaves that have already become a major worry for Republicans heading into next year’s midterm elections — areas that already have shown major warning signs for the party in recent special elections from Alabama to Virginia to Washington. That’s a huge problem for the party as it looks to hang onto control of the House — a war that will be largely fought in those same suburbs — and hold serve in the Senate.

“It’s a negative for us in every other way than fundraising,” one GOP strategist working on a number of congressional campaigns told TPM. “What’s the reason why some of these upper income districts have historically been with us and have stayed with us even as the party’s moved right on social issues? Taxes. If the Democrats are able to successfully prosecute the case on taxes in those districts against our members, then that’s a scary situation.”

The bill starts off with historically bad poll numbers for a major piece of legislation. Just 33 percent of Americans support the effort while 55 percent oppose it, according to a poll released by CNN on Tuesday. Those numbers were just as bleak in a Monmouth University poll that came out Monday: Just 26 percent of Americans approved of the plan, with 47 percent disapproving of it. Those polls show majorities of Americans think the bill’s changes benefit the wealthy more than the middle class — a true point, looking at most nonpartisan analysis of the bill.

Even Obamacare had about 40 percent approval in most polls when it passed in 2010, with a plurality but not a majority of Americans disapproving of the law, and its passage presaged one of the largest House midterm waves in history.

Those top-line numbers are rough. And while Republicans argue it’ll get more popular as Americans start getting tax cuts next year, the bill’s future is an even starker picture in the districts where House Republican incumbents already appeared the most vulnerable — blue-state suburbs.

That’s where the bill’s new $10,000 cap for deducting state and local income and property taxes will cause tax increases for a number of voters and where high local housing prices mean the plan’s lowering of the maximum rate people can deduct for mortgage interest could significantly deflate local real estate values. Those effects are particularly severe in the wealthier suburbs of states with higher local taxes like New York, New Jersey and California —  a potentially toxic mix in areas where once solidly Republican voters have already been fleeing their party in the Donald Trump era.

An analysis of the bill from Moody’s found that 15 of the 30 counties that are worst off under the new bill are in New Jersey. Some of the hardest-hit real estate markets would be in greater New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, D.C. and Minneapolis, where a bevy of Republicans face tough races.

The areas where the bill is the biggest problem could be seen in the GOP defections on the final vote for passage: 11 of the 12 GOP no votes on the bill came from New Jersey (four), New York (five) and California (two).

“It’s not good in my district, it’s not good in New Jersey,” Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) told TPM as he exited the House floor after the vote.

Suburban members like Reps. Barbara Comstock (R-VA), Peter Roskam (R-IL) and Ed Royce (R-CA) just handed Democrats another attack line with their yes votes.

But even GOP no votes like LoBiondo and Reps. Darrell Issa (R-CA) might not be able to escape voters’ fury over the bill — as the dozens of Democrats who lost their 2010 reelection fights even after voting against Obamacare can attest.

“I don’t necessarily believe that legislative success translates into electoral success. Just ask the Democrats — they had Obamacare,” Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA), a  suburban moderate who backed the bill and is retiring at the end of his term, told TPM.

LoBiondo’s response when asked if it would hurt him and other suburban Republicans in their reelection even if they voted against the bill: “Time will tell.”

While GOP leaders argue the tax plan will eventually become a political winner once voters find out more about it, even some of the bill’s supporters admit they’re not so sure. Republicans were in a tough spot. The party’s already facing major fundraising woes, and failure to pass the tax plan would have left them without any major legislative accomplishments to run on, while infuriating their donors.

“The only thing worse for them is if the bill fails,” former Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA), a one-time National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, told TPM before the bill passed. “It’s clearly worse if Republicans ended up doing nothing.”

But avoiding the worst-case scenario isn’t exactly the same as a win. And while Democrats are furious about the policy loss, they’re licking their chops about what it means for 2018.

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The House will have to take a mulligan on tax reform after the Senate parliamentarian ruled some portions of the bill don’t pass muster with reconciliation rules Tuesday afternoon, an embarrassing if temporary setback for Republicans’ top legislative priority as they close out the year.

The screw-up was on the Senate side, and is the latest sign of how fast Republicans are trying to rush through a major overhaul of both corporate and individual tax law.

The parliamentarian struck down Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) prized change to allow 529 college savings plans to be used for homeschooling expenses, as well as part of a provision exempting some private universities from a new tax on colleges’ student endowments. The title of the bill itself, “The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act,” was also ruled to violate Senate rules for allowing the bill to pass with 51 votes rather than a supermajority.

The changes are relatively minor — but the process screw-up is embarrassing. That ruling came just hours after House Republicans passed the $1.5 trillion tax cut, patting themselves on the back for a job well done.

“In the mad dash to provide tax breaks for their billionaire campaign contributors, our Republican colleagues forgot to comply with the rules of the Senate. We applaud the parliamentarian for determining that three provisions in this disastrous bill are in violation of the Byrd rule.  It is our intention to raise a point of order to remove these provisions from the conference report and require the House to vote on this bill again,” Budget Committee ranking Democrat Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Finance Committee ranking Democrat Ron Wyden (D-OR) said in a joint statement late Tuesday afternoon.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s (R-CA) office announced shortly afterwards that members should expect to revote on the bill Wednesday morning in response to the news. The Senate still plans to vote on the bill Tuesday night, though since it’ll now be a different bill the House will have to vote to concur with the changes before it can become law.

It’s a minor setback in the grand scheme for the GOP — but not a good look for Republicans.

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MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore ain’t done yet.

An obstinate Moore refused to concede defeat to Democrat Doug Jones even though he trailed Jones by a not-that-close 49.9 percent to 48.4 percent, insisting there was a possibility of a recount.

“Realize that when the vote is this close it is not over. We’ve still got to go by the rules and by this recount provision,” he declared around 10:30 p.m. CT Tuesday evening, more than an hour after the race had been called by the Associated Press and most TV networks – an after Jones had given his victory speech.

“We also know that God is always in control. The problem with this campaign is we’ve been painted with an unfavorable and unfaithful light. We’ve been put in a hole, if you will,” he continued. “That’s what we’ve got to do – wait on God and let this process play out. … Let’s go home and sleep on it.”

Alabama has a law for an automatic recount if the race’s margin is within 0.5 percent, paid for by the state. If the margin is wider, then a candidate can ask for (and pay for) a recount. But Jones led by more than 21,000 votes — a gaping chasm in the world of recount elections.

Moore’s campaign insisted Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill had indicated that a recount could happen, and told reporters to head to his office for an explanation of the rules.

Merrill, a staunch conservative who’d stuck by Moore’s campaign, said Moore could get a recount if he paid for it. But he threw cold water on Moore’s plans, telling CNN he “would find it highly unlikely” that Jones won’t be Alabama’s next senator.

Alabama Republicans made it clear that Moore is on his own in his quixotic quest.

“While we are deeply disappointed in the extremely close U.S. Senate election results, with our candidate Judge Roy Moore, we respect the voting process given to us by our Founding Fathers,” Alabama Republican Party Chair Terry Lathan said in a statement. “Now that this race has ended, may this holiday season of peace, love and hope resonate with everyone, regardless of one’s political affiliation.”

Even some of Moore’s closest allies weren’t optimistic.

John Eidsmoe, a friend and ally for decades who works for Moore’s Foundation for Moral Law, told TPM that it could be “days” for a final count — but was shocked when TPM told him that Jones trailed by more than 20,000 votes. When asked how confident he was that Moore could win, he said “not very.”

Moore, a firebrand social conservative, blew a race few thought a Democrat could win, largely because nine women came forward to accuse him of sexual misconduct. He remained willfully defiant throughout the campaign, denying all accusations. And after a career of obstinate refusal and intransigent fights with everyone who told him no, he looks like he’s going to go down kicking and screaming.

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MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Democrat Doug Jones will be Alabama’s next senator after one of the wildest races in recent memory, giving Democrats a crucial seat in the chamber and opening a real if narrow path to retaking Senate control next year.

Jones led accused child molester and GOP nominee Roy Moore by 49.6 percent to 48.8 percent with 89 percent of precincts reporting, according to the New York Times returns. The Associated Press has called the race, as have several TV networks.

Jones’s improbable victory was made possible when multiple women came forward to accuse Moore of sexual misconduct towards them when they were teenagers. Those allegations plunged the race into chaos and gave his party a rare chance at seriously contesting a race in deep red Alabama, where no Democrat has won a major statewide office since 2006.

His win narrows Republicans’ edge in the Senate to 51-49, leaving even less room for error on legislation and giving Democrats a real chance at winning back control of the chamber next year in spite of a brutal map where they’re mostly on defense.

Democrats now just need to hold serve in the 10 states that Trump won where they’re defending incumbents, and pick up swing-state Nevada and Arizona, to win back control. That appears doable if tough in the current political environment.

The result is likely to further inflame tensions between Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and President Trump. McConnell disavowed Moore’s campaign, called for him to drop out and refused to spend to help him after the allegations surfaced, while Trump rode to his rescue with rallies and money from the Republican National Committee after refusing to help push him out of the race. Both will likely blame the other for the disastrous result, further fueling fights within the party that will play out in a number of Senate primaries.

It’s also a blow to former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who threw his support hard behind Moore in the primary and stuck by him through the race. Bannon has promised support to a rash of populist firebrands in GOP primaries, but it might be harder to convince voters to back his candidates after the debacle in Alabama, where he was one of Moore’s most visible supporters.

The infighting between the factions began even before final results were in — and escalated as soon as the race was called for Jones.

“This is a brutal reminder that candidate quality matters regardless of where you are running,” Steven Law, the head of the pro-McConnell Senate Leadership Fund, said in a statement immediately after the AP called the race. “Not only did Steve Bannon cost us a critical Senate seat in one of the most Republican states in the country, but he also dragged the President of the United States into his fiasco.”

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Cory Gardner (R-CO) was direct, saying Alabama voters “deemed Roy Moore unfit to serve” before calling on Jones to vote with the GOP.

Trump himself was gracious in his loss.

But some of his supporters weren’t happy.

“I hate the fact that Doug Jones ran a gutter-style campaign instead of addressing the issues. This man hasn’t been charged with anything, he’s always been a man of faith,” Trump Alabama state chairman Perry Hooper, who was at the Moore election event, told TPM.

Hooper then turned on Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), the most prominent Alabama Republican who publicly refused to back Moore.

“It’s upsetting being a Trump guy, it’s a setback to Alabama… and there’s a lot of people upset with Sen. Shelby, I’ll tell you that,” he said.

Democrats were jubilant — starting with Jones.

“We have shown the country the way that we can be unified. … At the end of the day, this entire race has been about dignity and respect,” Jones said to a jubilant crowd in Birmingham. “This campaign has been about common courtesy and decency, and making sure everyone in this state, regardless of which zip code you live in, is going to get a fair shake in life.”

But even after the race was clearly over, Moore’s campaign wasn’t ready to concede defeat.

“Some people have called the race. We’re not calling it yet. … And it could be a while,” Moore adviser Rich Hobson said at 9:40 p.m. central time before asking supporters to pray.

Jones is a relatively liberal Democrat who’s likely to stand with his party on most issues for the next few years. He’s pro-choice, believes in climate change and holds progressive views on civil rights, LGBT rights and immigration.

He’s also been critical of the GOP tax bill, putting additional pressure on Republicans to pass the legislation before the end of the year, when he’ll replace appointed Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL) in Congress. Strange was appointed to the seat when President Trump picked Jeff Sessions to lead the Department of Justice, and lost to Moore in the primary in spite of huge spending by McConnell and his allies.

Jones is a former U.S. attorney who is best known in Alabama for successfully reopening a decades-old case and prosecuting the Ku Klux Klansmen who bombed a Birmingham church in 1963, killing four little girls.

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MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Tensions have started to build underneath the sounds of smooth jazz at Roy Moore’s election night party as updated results have Democrat Doug Jones closing in on Moore.

Moore was clinging to a narrow lead of 49.5 percent to 49 percent lead — less than 5,000 votes —shortly after 9 p.m. CT on Tuesday — when a jazz saxophonist wrapped up his cover of Carlos Santana’s “Smooth” and a few other gems and was met with nervous silence from the audience. Moore’s lead in the raw vote count had been shrinking all evening. County-by-county results indicated a nail-biter of a race — and the more urban, more Democratic counties had more of the outstanding vote.

“We’re hanging on, 81% of the vote, we need some more,” a Moore surrogate who’d been keeping the crowd warm all night said as a once-raucous crowd tittered nervously.

“Call it!” someone in the crowd yelled a few minutes later after a family band came onstage to sing “America the Beautiful.”

“I want to call it,” he joked back.

But the once-excited crowd’s happy chatter had dimmed to a dull murmur. And at 9:15 p.m. CT, the crowd fell silent as Jones pulled ahead, with the sad sounds of “Amazing Grace” playing in the background.

Black turnout has been higher than most experts expected — and significantly higher than white turnout in some crucial counties. That’s helped Jones claw his way into a virtual tie.

The race appears headed for a photo finish, with even expert prognosticators unclear who will win.

For those watching at home, under Alabama law any election narrower than 0.5 percent of the vote triggers an automatic recount. Get your popcorn.

If y’all continue to keep the faith,” the Moore surrogate told the crowd, “we’re going to get this thing.”

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MIDLAND CITY, Ala. — Kayla Moore used the final campaign rally for her husband to fire back against accusations that they hate Jews, black people and women, with an interesting choice of evidence.

“Fake news would tell you that we don’t care for Jews. But I’ll tell you all this because I see you all, I just want to set the record straight while they’re here: One of our attorneys is a Jew,” Kayla Moore said, waving towards the back of the room where reporters were gathered. “We have very close friends who are Jewish.”

The comment came towards the end of a testy and sometimes bizarre rally Monday night where she, her deeply controversial husband, Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, and top allies lashed out at all of their enemies, real and imagined: The multiple women who’ve accused him of sexual misconduct towards them when they were teenagers, the “fake news” that covered the women’s claims, the Republican establishment that’s recoiled from Moore since the allegations broke, and the Democrats who are hoping to score a shocking victory against him on Tuesday.

It was a fitting capstone for one of the most bizarre elections in recent memory.

Moore, who’s been missing from the campaign trail for almost a week, admitted he’d gone to Philadelphia “for two and a half days” to see his son play in the Army-Navy football game, while slamming reporters daring to report on his absence. Moore’s campaign had steadily refused to say where he was, insisting he’d been doing private events around the state.

“That’s one reason I don’t talk to the media — they won’t print the truth,” he said.

The event, held in an upscale barn in the deeply conservative and rural southeast corner of the state, featured stars of the hard right including former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke and Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX). A few hundred hardcore supporters showed up, as did almost as many journalists and dozens of protestors waving signs for Moore’s opponent, Democrat Doug Jones.

Bannon painted the race as “an up or down vote between the Trump miracle and the nullification project” — and issued broadsides against the media and the GOP establishment, barely mentioning Moore for much of his speech.

“There’s a special place in hell for Republicans who should know better,” he said to cheers, seemingly tweaking first daughter Ivanka Trump for her comments that “there’s a special place in hell for people who prey on children.”

Gohmert, a former judge, said the women who have accused Moore should be jailed if they lied: “If somebody got money for trying to destroy a righteous man, there’s a place called prison.”

But both were just warm-up acts for a man who said he served in Vietnam with Moore — and told a story about the two of them being taken by another soldier to a brothel they’d thought was just a private club when they’d agreed to go. As soon as Moore realized where they were, he said they should leave immediately, the man said.

“That was Roy. Honorable, disciplined, morally straight and highly principled,” he said, describing the accusations against Moore as the “political equivalent of a Vietcong ambush.”

The race has been consumed by accusations from multiple women of sexual misconduct towards them when they were teenagers — including one who says she was 14 when Moore undressed her and put her hand on his underwear, and another who says she was 16 when Moore sexually assaulted her.

Moore has led Jones in most, but not all recent polls of the race, in a contest that’s nearly impossible to predict heading into Election Day. Alabama hasn’t seen a tight statewide race in a decade, and a Jones victory would be a huge upset even with Moore’s fatal flaws as a candidate. Jones is banking on huge black turnout and major defections from Republican women to win the race.

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