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Alabama special senate election: Doug Jones vs. Roy Moore

Doug Jones and Roy Moore square off in a chaotic special election with national consequences.

Steve Bannon Joins Alabama Senate Candidate Roy Moore At Campaign Rally Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Update: Democrat Doug Jones has won the Alabama senate race, according to multiple news outlets.

Original post: What should have been a sleepy special election to fill Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s Alabama Senate seat turned into a chaotic, closely watched race on the national stage after Republican candidate Roy Moore was accused of sexual molestation and pursuing underage women while he was in his 30s.

Moore is now in a competitive contest against Democrat Doug Jones. The latest polls are all over the map. Most have Moore with a lead, but show Jones within the margin of error. In deep-red Alabama during a special election, that’s a sign that the race is up for grabs.

Polls close at 7 pm Central time (8 pm Eastern) on Tuesday, December 12.

The tight race underscores how much is at stake for both Republicans and Democrats. Republicans have 52 seats in the Senate, and the party can’t afford to shave off its already slim majority. The GOP condemned and called on Moore to step aside after he was accused of preying on teenage girls, including a 14-year-old, when he was in his 30s. Moore refused. Now the party seems to be swallowing their uneasiness about the candidate, especially in the wake of President Donald Trump’s unequivocal endorsement of Moore.

A Jones victory could give Democrats a tremendous boost in their attempts to flip the Senate in 2018. The midterm electoral map puts Democrats at a disadvantage, as they’re likely defending 26 seats compared to the Republicans’ eight. An upset win in Alabama would ease some of that pressure.

Voter turnout is expected to be low, even in such a high-profile race. Moore, a former Alabama Supreme Court judge, has long been a polarizing political figure, but he handily won the September runoff over the establishment candidate, Sen. Luther Strange, who was appointed by the former governor (who resigned amid his own scandal), to win the GOP nomination.

The controversy won’t end if Moore prevails Tuesday. Republicans realize it’s not a good look for them to accept Moore as a Senate colleague, especially as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been brought down by sexual-harassment allegations. The GOP is already mulling a Senate Ethics investigation into the accusations against Moore, which could potentially lead to his expulsion. It would be an unprecedented move. But Moore is an unprecedented candidate.

The vote count will be updated below and at this link.

Republicans might preserve their 52-seat Senate majority — but shoulder a lot of baggage

Republicans made their peace with Roy Moore after he beat Luther Strange in the September GOP runoff for now-Attorney General Jeff Session’s former seat. Moore had the backing of Steve Bannon, the executive chairman of the right-wing Breitbart News Network and Trump’s former chief strategist. Bannon is waging a larger insurrection against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and the GOP establishment. Moore is Bannon’s first Senate test case.

Moore is an infamous figure in Alabama politics, and became notorious on the national stage when, as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, he refused federal orders to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments that he had installed in the courthouse. He was removed from the bench in 2003. He ran for his old job again in 2012, and won. It didn’t last long; he was suspended, and then resigned, after refusing to enforce the US Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision.

Moore’s defiance has won him a hardcore base of supporters in Alabama, particularly among evangelical voters. He has continued to court controversy, calling homosexuality “detestable,” asserting Muslims should not be allowed to serve in Congress, and falsely stating publicly, including to a Vox reporter, that some American cities were under Sharia law. He asserted at a September rally that America was “great at the time when families were united — even though we had slavery.”

Many Alabama voters knew what they were getting when it came to Moore’s extreme views. But then came the allegations, first reported in the Washington Post on November 9, that Moore preyed on teenage girls when he was a district attorney in Alabama in his. One woman, Leigh Corfman, has accused Moore of kissing and groping her when she was 14 years old, and Moore was a 30-something prosecutor. (The age of consent in Alabama is 16.)

Another woman came forward with allegations that Moore sexually assaulted her when she was 16, and others spoke out about Moore’s predatory overtures toward teenagers at the mall. A woman also claimed Moore groped her butt during a meeting in the 1990s; she was 28, older than other accusers were.

Moore has vigorously denied the allegations, calling the accounts “fake news” and painting the women as liars. Yet Moore admitted, in an interview with conservative host Sean Hannity, that he “didn’t dispute” the claim that he had dated teenagers, and said he knew at least two of the women. (Which he later backtracked.)

Moore’s wishy-washy response sparked fierce condemnation among Republican leaders, who called for Moore to step aside. Moore refused — not that it would have changed much. By that point, absentee ballots had already been sent out, and the GOP was stuck with Moore.

Republican leaders floated a few scenarios to solve their Moore dilemma, including staging a write-in campaign or trying to get the December 12 election postponed. Both plans fizzled, as it became clear the Alabama governor would not change the election date, and the party feared that a write-in campaign would split the GOP vote, handing Jones the Senate seat.

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in November that Moore should be expelled from the Senate if he does win. It would be a historic step. No senator has been expelled since the Civil War, and of the 15 senators ever expelled, all but one were kicked out for their support for the Confederacy.

None, with the exception of Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), supported Moore’s Democrat opponent. Jones, who served as US attorney for the Northern District of Alabama during Bill Clinton’s second term, where he prosecuted two Ku Klux Klan members for murdering four girls in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing.

Jones has out-fundraised Moore in the final stretch, but the Democratic national party has stayed quiet in the race — likely fearing too much interference on behalf of Jones might backfire with Alabama’s more conservative voters. He has touted his ability to work across the aisle and has run a centrist campaign promoting the “kitchen table” issues of health care and taxes. Jones has also drilled down on Moore’s character, framing Moore as unfit to serve based on the misconduct allegations against him.

Polls taken in the weeks following the misconduct allegations against Moore put Jones on top, with one Fox News poll crediting him with an 8-point lead.

But most of the late November polls swung back in Moore’s favor, though Jones still fell within the margin of error. Another Fox News poll released Monday before the election gave Jones a 10-point lead. The wild fluctuations indicate the race remains a toss-up.

President Donald Trump may have helped further swing the race’s trajectory, after he finally commented on the race before Thanksgiving, saying Moore “totally denied” the allegations. The White House had previously been conspicuously silent in the wake of the Moore allegations, as the rest of the party spoke out.

But Trump, who has himself been accused of sexual harassment by multiple women, broke with his colleagues in a big way, finally offering his full and explicit endorsement on Twitter. “Democrats refusal to give even one vote for massive Tax Cuts is why we need Republican Roy Moore to win in Alabama,” he wrote.

Trump kept at it on Twitter, until basically campaigning for Moore at a rally in Pensacola, Florida — near the Alabama border — on Friday night. He bashed Jones as a “total puppet,” and instructed voters to go to the polls for Moore.

“We want jobs, jobs, jobs,” Trump said, “So get out and vote for Roy Moore. Do it, do it, do it.” The president also recorded a robocall for the Moore campaign, released on Sunday.

Even before that, Trump’s explicit backing seemed to soften the Republican opposition to Moore. McConnell, who said in November that he “believed the women” and that Moore should step aside, in December said, “the voters of Alabama will make their choice.”

And the Republican National Committee said last Monday it would support Moore again, after cutting ties in November.

There’s another element working against Jones: Many Alabama voters do not believe the allegations against Moore in the era of “fake news.” An early November poll found 29 percent of voters were more likely to vote for Moore after the revelations about his past. A CBS News poll found 71 percent of Alabama Republicans believed the allegations to be false.

That partisan distrust and Trump’s push — the president won Alabama with more than 62 percent of the vote — will likely make Moore victorious Tuesday. But a few late-breaking factors could push Jones over the edge.

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill predicted about 20 percent of registered voters as likely to go to the polls. The secretary of state also sent out instructions on how to fill in write-in ballots after a surge of interest — or more likely, over dissatisfaction with the major party candidates.

Sen. Richard Shelby, the senior US senator from Alabama, said Sunday that “the state of Alabama deserves better,” and he would not vote for Moore amid the drip of allegations against him. “I’d rather see the Republican win, but I would hope that Republican would be a write-in,” he said. “I couldn't vote for Roy Moore. I didn't vote for Roy Moore. But I wrote in a distinguished Republican name.”

A write-in candidate probably can’t win the Alabama election outright, but could play as a spoiler. Col. Lee Busby, a retired Marine running on a conservative agenda, declared his write-in candidacy 15 days before the election.

That could be good news for Jones, who needs Republican voters to stay home or write someone in as a protest vote — and a surge of turnout in cities and among black voters.

If Moore wins, it may be a short-lived victory for Republicans. Moore is a fringe candidate on a major ticket, and he’ll likely continue to stoke controversy in the Senate. What’s more, Congress is reckoning with a slow trickle of sexual harassment allegations, following the resignations of Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) and Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ). More allegations against lawmakers are all but guaranteed in the coming days and weeks.

Republicans know having a colleague accused of molesting children is more than a bad look. It could have serious electoral consequences as the #MeToo movement surges and the midterms approach in 2018. Voters may be primed to punish the party for its complicity in brushing aside sexual misconduct for political calculations — first for Trump, and now with Moore.

Republicans may preserve a seat, and their 52-48 majority on Tuesday. The costs, however, could be colossal.

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