BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — For many Alabama voters, unaccustomed to a competitive election and the national attention that has come with it, the bitter showdown between Republican Roy Moore and Democrat Doug Jones has become something more personal than a race to fill an open Senate seat. It is now a referendum on the state’s identity.
Supporters of Jones say with concern that a win Tuesday by the firebrand Moore would derail the state’s efforts to escape its painful history and rebrand as a forward-thinking place welcoming to Fortune 500 companies and a highly educated workforce. And they express a nagging feeling that a Moore victory would be a deflating sign that Alabama remains beholden to its past.
“You travel across the country and you say ‘Alabama,’ and something goes right across people’s eyes every time,” said retired actor Jonathan Fuller, a 61-year-old Democrat, as he shopped at the Piggly Wiggly supermarket in the suburbs south of Birmingham. “I don’t want to apologize anymore for where I’m from because there is this pocket of stubbornness in my state.”
Supporters of Moore, meanwhile, see his candidacy as a conduit for their rejection of the national media and political elites who they believe unfairly caricature their home state as a cultural backwater. They shrug off the notion that sexual misconduct allegations against Moore — allegations that some see as a fabrication by outsiders — should make a difference.
“I don’t believe a word they say about him,” J.W. Poore, a 77-year-old retired home builder and Republican, said outside a Lowe’s Home Improvement store in the Birmingham area. “The Democrats have been against us all the way. They don’t accept the president, they don’t accept nobody.” He said people outside of Alabama “have no right to judge us.”
The vivid contrast between the two candidates — Moore, 70, with his apocalyptic warnings about Muslims and gay rights, against Jones, a low-key 63-year-old lawyer best known for prosecuting Ku Klux Klan members who planned the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham — has put in sharp relief the idea that the results could speak volumes about Alabama to the rest of the country — and to itself.
One pivotal group on Tuesday will be voters who feel caught between these two visions and must pick a side, especially Republican-leaning voters who feel pulled between their traditional values and a desire to turn the page on the uglier parts of Alabama’s past.
In the past several decades, Alabama has successfully begun to transform from a largely agricultural economy based around poultry and timber to a manufacturing and technology hub anchored in a growing federal contracting community. Much of the aerospace industry is based around Huntsville. Mercedes-Benz and a core supplier of the company recently relocated to rural Bibb County, and GE Aviation recently announced a $200 million investment to build a new ceramic matrix composites factory. The local universities have invested considerably in recent years in science and engineering programs, nurturing a booming biotechnology industry.
From the shadow of the University of Alabama’s football stadium to Moore’s hilly home town of Gadsden, voters — black and white, Democrat and Republican — said they are deliberating in their communities and sometimes with themselves on the campaign and what it means for their state.
“We’ve got a lot of good here, a lot of people who died for equal rights. And we’ve got a lot of people who are stuck in 1930, and that’s not going to change,” Phillip Hutchins, a 67-year-old Democrat and retired aircraft worker, said last week outside a grocery store in Titusville, a heavily black neighborhood in Birmingham.
Business-minded white Republicans — a bloc that sees itself as modern and puts an emphasis on education, commerce and tradition — have been uneasy about Moore. They have recoiled, too, at the cascade of controversies that have gripped the state this year, making the current race a culmination of various discomforts rather than a sudden drama.
Business leaders said the state’s image had already taken a hit with the resignation of then-Gov. Robert Bentley (R) in April, after pleading guilty to two campaign finance misdemeanors in connection with a scandal involving secret recordings of inappropriate sexual conversations by Bentley with a woman who is not his wife.
The competition with other states for corporate investment is fierce, and state business executives have watched closely what happened in North Carolina after its ban on gender-neutral bathrooms.
“The margin of error is extremely thin,” said George Clark, president of Manufacture Alabama, an industry advocacy group. “Everybody is trying to improve their workforce. Any negative you have — it’s like recruitment in football — it will be used against you.”
Jones has courted the business establishment, many of them Republicans, on both moral and economic grounds, urging them to abandon their partisan instincts to protect the state’s economy and reputation.
But Jones, who supports abortion rights and whose campaign headquarters has a Planned Parenthood poster on its wall, has struggled to win over Republicans such as JoAnn Turner, a 71-year-old nurse who lives in Vestavia Hills, a mostly white Birmingham suburb.
“I’ve been in Alabama for 42 years, and I’m so tired of the publicity being so bad. It’s not who we are, and it’s embarrassing,” Turner said, referencing the allegations against Moore and the racial tensions associated with the state. “The people of today, the generation of today, has put what has happened behind us. You look at this neighborhood, it’s kind, good Christian people.”
“All that said,” Turner added, “I can’t vote for Roy Moore, and I can’t vote for Doug Jones. I have spent my life helping to deliver babies. I’ll have to do a write-in, because at the end of the day, this is about my conscience.”
Turner plans to write in Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.), who was appointed to the seat earlier in the year following Jeff Sessions’s confirmation as attorney general. Moore beat Strange, an ally of President Trump with a moderate temperament, in a September primary runoff.
Billie Hopper, a soft-spoken 73-year-old Republican from Fultondale, said she stands by Moore and will support him because she does not trust the reporting about his alleged sexual advances toward teenage girls when he was in his 30s. She called him crucial to the causes of putting another conservative justice on the Supreme Court and assisting Trump with his legislative agenda.
“He has stood up for things that I believe in, Christian values,” Hopper said, adding that she is dismayed by coverage of Alabama and television ads that she says portrays the state as “backwoodsy . . . white supremacists, haters, things like that. I don’t hate anyone. I love them all.”
While Trump has endorsed Moore, as has former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, Strange and veteran Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) have remained wary of the former judge who was twice removed from the state Supreme Court — and have called the allegations against him credible and disturbing.
Shelby has opted to cast a write-in vote, telling The Washington Post that he is anxious about how a Moore victory would affect the corporate world’s impressions of Alabama. “Image, reputation. Is this a good place to live, or is it so controversial that we wouldn’t go there?” Shelby said. “You know, these companies are looking to invest. They are looking for a good place to live, a good place to do business, a good education system, opportunities, transportation. And we have come a long way; we’ve got to keep going. . . . We can’t live in the past.”
Other Alabama Republicans do not share the senators’ apprehension about Moore. Gov. Kay Ivey (R), who is running in a crowded race for governor next year, has said she would vote for him.
Black Democrats, on whom the Jones campaign is counting to turn out Tuesday in strong numbers, said they believe Jones has a shot at winning but do not expect his victory, should he win, to change the state’s culture entirely.
“Right, wrong or indifferent, that’s who we are,” Ron Pace, an Army veteran and Democrat, said over breakfast at Fife’s Restaurant in downtown Birmingham, when asked about Moore. “Five more years from now, there’s going to be another Roy Moore, and they’ll vote in the interests of that Christian coalition.”
A Washington Post-Schar School poll released Dec. 2 showed Jones and Moore in a dead heat among likely voters, while a RealClearPolitics polling average shows Moore slightly ahead. The Post-Schar School survey illustrated the ways the race is dividing the state, with Moore supported by more than 6 in 10 whites — including a clear majority of white women.
Dana Billingsley, a Republican real estate broker sitting with friends at a Starbucks on a weekday in suburban Vestavia Hills, is more open to voting for Jones and said she has taken to Facebook to vent about “Roy Moore being on Jimmy Kimmel” and Sessions being parodied on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”
“I like Donald Trump since he loves real estate and isn’t afraid of getting a divorce,” Billingsley said with a laugh. “But I actually haven’t liked Roy Moore since before the allegations. I mean, this is 2017. Come on. The world has changed.” She said she hasn’t followed Jones but knows enough: “What he did on the 16th Street bombing was right.”
Outside of Birmingham and in rural towns to the east — home to massive evangelical churches and family-owned barbecue restaurants that puff black smoke out of chimneys — Moore’s support is heartier, particularly in his home town of Gadsden on the Coosa River.
“I know Roy Moore personally. He’s an easygoing guy, and I don’t believe he did what he’s accused of,” said Michael Newsome, a burly 22-year-old Gadsden-area welder. “I’ve done work at his house, and we all know him as a gentle guy who’s religious. Honestly, in good faith, I truly believe him.”
Ava Lyles, a 71-year-old grandmother who leans Republican, echoed him as she picked up Christmas gifts at the Gadsden Mall — the same mall Moore frequented when he was a young district attorney and where several of his accusers say he engaged them.
“I’m for Moore,” Lyles said. “Whatever happened in the past is now in the past, and God forgives us all.” She dismissed the suggestion that the race has stirred debates about the state’s character.
“Oh, please. Haven’t we always been bad, like cousins marrying cousins? That’s not true, but people say what they want to say. Always have judged us,” Lyles said.
Otis Dupree, a 53-year-old retired chicken-plant worker who works part time at the Burger King in Gadsden, said he is “disgusted” with the city’s embrace of Moore.
“The way I see it is white folks stick with him; that’s pretty much what’s going on,” Dupree said. “People in Alabama are going along with it — and it’s messed up.”
More than 100 miles southwest on the state’s flagship campus — the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa — hundreds of students in athletic clothing and T-shirts stream out of dorm buildings and sorority mansions across the street from the school’s beloved Bryant-Denny Stadium.
As with the men and women in Vestavia Hills, many of them are financially stable and white — and Republican in a cultural sense as much as ideologically. They see themselves as Alabama’s future and are eager to define it.
Roy Moore isn’t part of that plan, according to Ella Jernigan, a 19-year-old Republican student who’s studying marketing.
“My family had been friends with Luther Strange for years,” Jernigan said on her way to a meeting. “I thought that was where we were as a state. I can’t stand us getting pinned now as rednecks or uneducated.”
She added, “Every time you think we’re going forward, something like Roy Moore sets us back.”
Tim Booth, a 52-year-old construction worker on campus, however, had no such angst over Moore. Chewing tobacco and wearing a camouflage hunting cap, Booth said Tuesday’s vote was more of a rebuff to the state’s critics than a reckoning for its residents.
“People can see us the way they want to,” Booth said. “It’s like the way we look at California: They should be their own little country.”