HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Andrea McCafferty pulled into the parking lot of Sugar Belle, curious why the coffee shop would be so crowded on a Tuesday. The big draw was Louise Jones, whose husband, Doug Jones, is the Democratic Senate nominee. After grabbing some tea, McCafferty took a seat near the front of the room and gave Jones some advice.
“Make sure the Republicans understand that they can vote in this election if they don’t like Roy Moore,” she told Louise Jones. “There are a lot of people who want to vote for Jones, but don’t want to cross the party.”
In the closing days of Alabama’s unexpectedly close race ahead of a special election, a battle is emerging for voters like McCafferty: white suburban women who typically support GOP candidates but who, unlike many of their male counterparts, have become uneasy about Moore.
Each side, relying at times on the candidates’ wives to make their case, is presenting female voters with an awkward choice regarding their vote Dec. 12: Stand by a man accused of making unwanted sexual advances toward teenage girls when he was in his 30s, or vote for a Democrat with liberal views on abortion and other issues and whose victory could imperil the Senate’s Republican majority.
Both campaigns consider these women potentially critical, particularly for Jones, whose high-wire strategy in this deeply conservative state depends on peeling away a segment of Republican voters from Moore in addition to mobilizing a massive turnout of African Americans and other core Democratic voters.
In Huntsville, a fast-growing and highly educated “rocket city,” Doug Jones signs have sprung up in cul-de-sacs where President Trump and other Republicans have won easily.
In interviews, suburban Republican women who back Jones said they did not want to face this choice. Suzanne Turner, the chair of the English Department at Calhoun Community College in Huntsville, stressed that she went to church every Sunday and helped raise money for Republican Jeff Sessions when he ran for Senate.
“I’d like to see someone in there who’d support Trump, but I believe the women” who have accused Moore, said Turner, 67. “I put a Doug Jones sign in my yard. I felt a little sick doing that. But I had to.”
The Jones campaign has stepped up its outreach to suburban women, with events such as Louise Jones’s coffee visits, designed for undecided voters. A television ad that began running last week portrays eight of Moore’s accusers and asks if voters will “make their abuser a U.S. senator.” A digital ad, also running heavily, lingers on each photo, and accuses Moore of “immoral” behavior.
Moore has denied the allegations. His campaign, which was massively outspent on the air even before national Republicans abandoned it, has begun to fight back. In its latest ad, Republican women defend Moore, saying that “the establishment is trying to stop” him.
Recent polling suggests that, among women, Jones is making gains. In a Fox News Channel survey released after most of the accusers went public, Jones had an eight-point lead over Moore, based largely on a surge with female voters. The percentage of women in the state who had a favorable view of Moore dropped 11 points between mid-October and mid-November, from 47 percent to 36 percent; among men, Moore dropped by just two points.
Moore’s campaign still sees a path to victory — one that starts with voters choosing to ignore Moore’s accusers. The state’s highest-ranking female Republicans, Gov. Kay Ivey and Alabama GOP Chairman Terry Lathan, have reaffirmed their support for Moore. Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.), the sole female member of the congressional delegation, withdrew her 2016 Trump endorsement after the “Access Hollywood” tape was revealed, but has remained quiet about Moore.
Part of the argument to GOP voters, including suburban women who are skeptical of Moore personally, is that a Jones victory could put at risk the party's control of the Senate and make it harder for Trump to win confirmation of federal judges who oppose abortion. If Jones wins, the GOP's already tenuous majority in the Senate would narrow to 51 to 49.
On Sunday, Trump continued his largely solo campaign to help Moore by taking to Twitter to denounce the candidate’s Democratic opponent as other GOP lawmakers continued to oppose their party’s nominee over the sexual misconduct allegations.
“The last thing we need in Alabama and the U.S. Senate is a Schumer/Pelosi puppet who is WEAK on Crime, WEAK on the Border, Bad for our Military,” Trump tweeted Sunday morning, suggesting that Jones would side with the Senate and House Democratic leaders. “Jones would be a disaster!”
The president later suggested that Republicans “can’t let Schumer/Pelosi win this race.” He did not mention Moore by name in either tweet but each time criticized Jones in a way that made clear he supports the Republican nominee.
Most white, female and conservative Alabamians have no recent experience voting for a Democrat in a federal election. In 2012, the last year an Election Day exit poll was conducted in Alabama, just 16 percent of white women voted to reelect President Barack Obama, who performed nearly four points better overall in the state than Hillary Clinton would in 2016.
In rural Alabama, few female voters say they’re ready to bolt from the GOP. Some have started to describe the election as a tricky, but solvable, moral problem — a choice between an alleged sexual predator and a supporter of abortion on demand. Teresa Ferguson, a Moore supporter from a town 50 miles southeast of Huntsville, said she had been advising her peers to think of the Supreme Court and other Republican legislative priorities.
“I’m not calling anybody a liar. You just don’t know. That’s a private thing. There is just a bigger picture here,” she said. “There is a goal greater, which is we will have to have another Supreme Court justice before too long, and we can’t afford to lose a United States Senate seat.”
There’s less hand-wringing among white male conservatives, who have powered Alabama’s Republicans toward their current dominance. On talk radio, the debates taking place among suburban voters have largely been settled, with predominantly male hosts and callers asking whether Moore has been treated unfairly.
“It was very defiant when the story first broke,” said Dale Jackson, an influential morning host in the Huntsville area. “It shifted a little after one accuser produced the yearbook [bearing an inscription she said is Moore’s] — like, oh man, maybe there’s something to this. And as time’s passed, it’s kind of shifted back.”
As Jones and his wife made their way to Huntsville for the women’s event last Tuesday, Jackson’s callers took turns defending Moore from the onslaught. Ed Henry, a Republican state representative who had stood by Moore from the beginning, said that the candidate was getting past the story by training his guns on the media.
“He’s in hiding,” Jackson said.
“He’s trying to stay on point,” Henry said.
Over three hours, callers questioned the timing of the accusers’ revelations and pointed to the hypocrisy of Democrats who seemed happy to defend their allies from sex scandals. Anger at the media, Jackson said, was allowing plenty of conservative voters to compartmentalize the story.
Democrats don’t expect to win any votes for Jones on talk radio. The election will be won or lost with suburban women — some who declare their support in public, and plenty who can’t. Parker Griffith, the last Democratic congressman from the Huntsville area, said that countless Republican women would stay quiet through Election Day, then end up voting for Jones.
“Women are not so brand-oriented,” Griffith said. “They look at these things from a survival standpoint: ‘Who’s going to be best for my children?’ A man doesn’t seem to have that problem.”
Yet for every outspoken female voter, both parties wonder how many are staying quiet — or being urged, at home, to come back to the Republican.
Democrats, who say that Moore can still win the race, are gripped with a kind of deja vu.
Weeks before the 2016 election, they speculated that a tape of Trump bragging about sexual assault, accompanied by a wave of accusations of harassment, would turn off millions of female independents and conservatives. Trump went on to win key states, and win landslides across the Deep South, even among white female voters, helped by the last-minute news that the FBI would investigate more of Clinton’s emails.
“It surprised me,” said Tina Brown, 49, a social worker who saw Jones speak in Huntsville. “I knew people who had real concerns about Trump, but they went for him anyway because they were so against the alternative.”
Paul Kane and Michael Scherer in Washington contributed to this report.