Republican Roy Moore’s stunning defeat in Alabama marked a watershed moment for the national movement around the issue of sexual abuse.
The allegations that Moore had made sexual advances on girls as young as 14 decades ago, when he was in his 30s, had created a real contest out of what should have been an easy victory for any Republican candidate in ruby-red Alabama.
“Women really do seem to be wanting to make their collective voices heard on this issue, and they don’t want to see it swept under the rug one more time,” said Jessica Leeds, one of those who stepped forward last year to accuse Donald Trump, then the GOP presidential nominee, of having committed sexual misconduct.
With Trump’s election, that kind of reckoning seemed to have been pushed backward.
But the sense of grievance remained, and gained force this fall with the toppling of movie producer Harvey Weinstein and the once-revered figures in media and politics who have been taken down in his wake.
Democrat Doug Jones’s unlikely victory may also be a sign that the formula for winning in a deeply polarized political climate, perfected by Trump, may not be so reliable as it seemed.
“I think the politics may be at a real turning point,” said author Taylor Branch, best known for his trilogy of volumes about the civil rights era. “Anti-government, obstructionist politics are being reduced to having to be explicitly backward and tribal. That works for Trump, but I just don’t think that it’s going to keep working.”
As the #MeToo movement takes hold and matures, it is moving beyond the stage of rooting out individual bad actors to “seeking a different level of accountability,” said Fatima Goss Graves, president of the National Women’s Law Center.
“They want individuals to be held accountable, but really they are seeking institutions to change,” she said. “There is a new pressure for institutions to finally get this right.”
In an interview conducted before the Alabama polls closed, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) had said that a win by Jones would be “a huge political victory, and it’s a victory for women across the country to not have a pedophile in the U.S. Senate. But it’s not like we’re done with the question. There are still going to be a lot of issues that we have to resolve, a lot of questions that are going to come up.”
She noted that many Republican leaders in Washington had also opposed Moore, and said, “In some ways, Roy Moore is the easiest of all the questions in front of us for the #MeToo movement.”
One of those questions is how to deal with lingering accusations against the president. He and his allies continue to insist that all the women who have accused him are politically motivated liars, and that their claims were litigated in the 2016 election.
But it has been revived.
Even as Alabama voters were going to the polls on Tuesday, the president was engaged in a Twitter battle with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who has been a leading voice on the issue and who has called upon him to resign.
Trump called her “a lightweight,” a “total flunky,” and “someone who would come to my office ‘begging’ for campaign contributions not so long ago (and would do anything for them).” In that parenthetical, some saw sexual innuendo.
Gillibrand retorted with her own tweet: “You cannot silence me or the millions of women who have gotten off the sidelines to speak out about the unfitness and shame you have brought to the Oval Office.”
As the country was watching the political saga unfold in Alabama, it was easy for many in other parts of the country to dismiss the Moore supporters as simply backward, without recognizing some of those sentiments in more elitist circles.
“We shouldn’t beat up on folks in some gas station in Selma as being different from Weinstein’s enablers,” said historian and author David J. Garrow, who has chronicled the civil rights movement.
That is why some of the most important conversations may be the ones that are taking place more quietly.
In Michigan, Democratic attorney general candidate Dana Nessel has made the issue of sexual harassment a centerpiece of her campaign — even releasing a satirical campaign ad, which quickly went viral, in which she told voters to ask themselves: “Who can you trust most not to show you their penis in a professional setting?”
At a campaign event Tuesday night, Nessel said in an interview, a woman pulled her aside and shared her experiences being harassed on the job in the 1980s, “how demeaning and dehumanizing it was.”
“The fact that we’re having these conversations now, in such an audible way, means there are great changes in our future,” Nessel said. “I think that time is coming to an end.”
Though Moore will not be a member of the U.S. Senate, Democrats plan to make sure that he is not forgotten as the country moves into the midterm election season.
Alabama “soundly rejected the new Republican Party of Roy Moore and Donald Trump and their toxic agenda,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in a statement after media organizations projected Jones the winner. “President Trump, Republican Senate candidates and the Republican National Committee showed us exactly who they are by standing with Roy Moore — and we will make sure voters do not forget it.”
As it happens, Lyndon B. Johnson was also talking about Alabama 52 years ago, when he said: “At times, history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom.”
It is too early to know what kind of significance history will attach to the pivot point that a special election for a Senate seat in that state represents in a 21st-century civil rights struggle. But it does indicate that forces beyond the pull of party loyalty and ideology still have the power to shape the state of politics and potentially society itself.
Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.