BRENT, Ala. — Embattled Senate candidate Roy Moore is pinning his hopes for victory on Alabama’s long-held tradition of sharp defiance to perceived threats from forces outside the state.
That rebellious spirit, which dates to long before the state’s segregationist Gov. George Wallace became a national figure in the 1960s by railing against the “central government” in Washington, has been apparent in recent days as top state GOP officials have closed ranks around Moore amid a stream of allegations of sexual misconduct against the Republican and calls by national party leaders for him to step aside.
Moore’s campaign has taken to repeating Alabama’s motto, written in Latin on the state coat of arms in 1923 and translated to “We dare defend our rights,” while Moore backers have repeatedly argued that their state has the right to decide its own fate in the Dec. 12 special election.
“Alabamians will be the ultimate jury in this election, not the media or those from afar,” said state party chairwoman Terry Lathan.
Gov. Kay Ivey (R) said Friday she would vote for Moore despite being bothered by the accusations against him, because, “I believe in the Republican Party, what we stand for, and most important, we need to have a Republican in the United States Senate to vote on things like the Supreme Court justices.”
Similar sentiments are coming from local-level Republicans such as Steve Morgan, the vice chairman of the Bibb County GOP in rural central Alabama, who says he doesn’t know what to make of the allegations against Moore but is frustrated by the involvement of those who live outside of Alabama — starting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other national leaders who have abandoned Moore.
“The people in Alabama don’t like to be told what to do,” said Morgan, 69, who did not support Moore in the GOP primary.
“I never liked Roy Moore,” he continued. “But guess what? I’m voting for Roy Moore, because I hate the stupidity that has invaded the Republican Party.”
Political tensions here have mounted over the past week as Moore’s candidacy has made Alabama the epicenter of a national debate about sexual assault, the future of the U.S. Senate, the fate of President Trump’s agenda and the direction of the Republican Party.
The Senate seat had widely been expected to remain in Republican hands when it was vacated by Jeff Sessions, who became attorney general. A GOP victory was expected even after Moore defeated the incumbent who had been appointed to replace Sessions, Sen. Luther Strange, who had the backing of Trump and other national party leaders.
Republican voters will have a decisive say in who wins. Nearly two-thirds of Alabama voters typically vote Republican, which means Democrats don’t have enough people to win statewide without Republicans either crossing over or staying home in protest.
But Moore faces a well-financed Democratic opponent, former prosecutor Doug Jones, who has tried to reach out to white Republicans with his own twist on the politics of defiance — including a television ad called “Honor” in which he narrates a Civil War battle involving a Confederate general from Alabama.
Jones, meanwhile, has largely avoided discussing the sexual-assault allegations against Moore, although one of his most recent television ads features a Republican who makes an oblique reference. “You read the story, and it just shakes you,” she says.
A Fox News poll completed after the allegations surfaced found that Jones had taken the lead with 50 percent of likely voters, compared with 42 percent for Moore. Other polls have shown the race tied or with Moore still holding on to a lead.
The Washington Post first reported Nov. 9 on four women who said Moore pursued them as teenagers, including one who said she was 14 and Moore was 32 when he touched her sexually. Two other women have since told The Post that Moore pursued them about the same time when they worked as teenagers at the mall in Gadsden, Ala. Another woman, represented by attorney Gloria Allred, says Moore assaulted her in a parked car when she was 16. AL.com has reported on two other women, one who says Moore groped her bottom in 1991, when she was 28 years old, and a second who says Moore asked her out in 1982, when she was a 17-year-old waitress at the Red Lobster restaurant in Gadsden.
Moore, 70, has consistently denied any sexual misconduct and has alleged that the women are part of a politically motivated plot against him. In an interview with conservative radio host Sean Hannity, Moore did not rule out the possibility that he dated teenagers older than 16, the legal age of consent, when he was in his 30s. He told Hannity he did not approve of such relationships now. “If I did, I’m not going to dispute these things, but I don’t remember anything like that,” Moore said.
The Moore campaign, which has always been anchored in his opposition to the Republican political establishment, has attempted to turn the debate over the accusations into a referendum on state independence, even though the accusers are all local women. At a rally Friday, Kayla Moore, the candidate’s wife, said that the local feedback she has heard about the allegations has been supportive of her husband. “Most of the negative has been from out of state,” she said. “The people of Alabama know what is going on here.”
She was echoing her husband, who tweeted Thursday what has become the core of the campaign’s message: “This is an effort by Mitch McConnell and his cronies to steal this election from the people of Alabama and they will not stand for it!”
Moore and his surrogates regularly attack the national media and Republican leaders, arguing that there is a conspiracy to take away the rights of voters. “This is a usurpation by Mitch McConnell of the 17th Amendment that gives voters the right who we want to choose who we want in the government,” declared Ann Eubank, the leader of the Alabama Legislative Watchdogs, at a Moore campaign event in Montgomery on Friday.
Many Republicans, at least so far, are embracing that view.
In interviews with nearly two dozen Republican voters across the state, only a handful said they knew people who said they would abandon Moore altogether. Some have burrowed into the details of the accusations, denials and counterclaims like detectives, trying to suss out the truth amid a sea of online misinformation.
Josh Lambert, 23, a software developer from Centreville, spent the primary volunteering to distribute Moore signs around the county, but after the accusations surfaced, he stopped volunteering. He said he won’t vote for a Democrat who supports abortion rights, but he was unsure about his vote for Moore. “Please hold a press conference, an actual press conference, and take questions,” he said when asked whether he had a message for Moore. “It would help me as a voter.”
Others have made clear that, like the governor’s, their loyalty to the GOP and the prospect of another Senate vote for an antiabortion Supreme Court justice are more important, as long as any doubt remains.
At a Republican Party breakfast in Huntsville on Saturday, party leaders argued that voters should focus more on the political implications of the race than the allegations. “Doug Jones is going to vote wrong, and Roy Moore is going to vote right,” said Republican U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks (Ala.), who ran against Moore in the GOP primary.
Brooks also seemed to jokingly downplay the significance of allegations of Moore’s behavior 40 years ago. “Just remember, he was a Democrat back then,” Brooks said. “He has been converted into a Republican now.”
David Pinkleton, a young Republican activist in the Huntsville area who lost his part-time job organizing for Moore when the Republican National Committee pulled from the race, said he was struggling with his decision to continue supporting Moore. “I don’t envy my fellow Republicans and Alabamians, because everybody is trying to rationalize,” said Pinkleton, who has worked to support victims of sex trafficking in the state. “I do want a culture where victims can be heard and believed.”
Some, such as Julia Cooper, 75, a semiretired nurse from Montgomery, said they were continuing to support Moore because of the spiritual battle he was waging. She said that when she was a high school student in Camden, Ala., a man in his 20s or 30s came to her house to date her but she resisted his requests. “Even at the age of 14, you could have walked away,” she said of the accusers. “If you want to get out, you can get out.”
A few said privately that they will no longer support Moore, although they are wary of announcing the decision publicly, given a party rule that bars people who want to run for office from supporting a Democratic nominee.
Jones strategists say they need three things to happen to win: Some moderate Republicans in the suburbs, especially women, have to cross party lines; black turnout needs to be high; and other Republicans who would never vote for a Democrat need to stay home.
Jones, who is white, has been carefully spreading different messages to win his target voters. On R&B radio, he is running an ad in which he recounts his closing arguments as the lead prosecutor in the case against two Ku Klux Klan members responsible for the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed four black schoolgirls.
At the same time on television, Jones has been trying to reach out to white Republicans directly, in part by tapping into the deep history of animosity from Alabama to Washington leaders. The signature ad of the race is the spot in which he narrates the Civil War battle, a tale from Gettysburg in which an Alabama general leads a failed charge on Union troops from Maryland.
Jones calls both generals brave men, but he says that “those times have passed” and it is time to change the approach. “I want to go to Washington and meet the representatives from Maryland and those from every other state, not on the battlefield, but to find common ground,” he says, positioning himself as an heir to Alabama’s fighting legacy.
Giles Perkins, the chairman of Jones campaign, says the state’s strong political identity cannot be ignored by either campaign. “We Alabama voters have a lot of pride in our state and like to make our own decisions,” he said.
Some Republicans here suggested that the polls showing a tightening race may undercount Moore’s support. “It’s kind of like George Wallace,” said Joe Fuller, a longtime state party official, who says he is voting for Moore despite the allegations because he always votes his party’s ticket. “You either loved George Wallace, or you didn’t like him. Years ago, I never found anybody who voted for George Wallace, but he always won.”
Neal Cook, a Winston County Republican who supported Strange in the primary, said he was still undecided on his vote. “One day he will stand before the ultimate judge, and the truth will be revealed,” Cook said of Moore.
Others have been inspired by the allegations to redouble their commitment in an effort to fight back against Moore’s foes.
During the primary, the Moore campaign erected an eight-foot sign for the candidate on the property of the Wilson Garage Door Co. on Dan Tibbs Road in Huntsville, which came down after the primary and was expected to go back up after Thanksgiving.
After the allegations broke, Daniel Burns, a volunteer for the Moore campaign, got a text message from the grandson of the company’s owner. “My granddad said the sign can go back up whenever you have a chance,” Burns said the message read. “He’s tired of this nonsense on the news.”
Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly identified the Union state mentioned in a television ad in which Senate candidate Doug Jones narrates a Civil War battle. The state is Maine, not Maryland.