AUBURN, Ala. — On Monday, when President Trump finally endorsed Roy Moore for Senate, Mac Watson threw up his hands and fired up his grill. Watson, the co-owner of a family patio supply store, was the very first Republican to announce a write-in campaign for the seat, back when national Republicans said they'd wanted one.
He’d taken a risk. They hadn’t.
“So very many people with ‘R’ behind their name put party before principle, and that’s disgusting to me,” Watson said, slicing through pork and vegetables he’d just taken off a display grill. “Trump is definitely one of them. He could have made a difference two months ago, and he did nothing.”
For three agonizing weeks, since The Washington Post revealed that Moore had once made unwanted advances toward teenage girls, Senate Republicans and conservative pundits called for a write-in candidate to bail them out. Six Alabamians stepped forward; retired Col. Lee Busby, a former aide to White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, made the biggest headlines.
"I didn't feel like either of the candidates the parties offered represented the majority of us," Busby said in a Web ad released Tuesday.
Even before Trump and the Republican National Committee swung in to back Moore again, the write-in campaigns were falling short. In an echo of the 2016 campaign, when some center-right Republicans scrambled for an alternative to Trump, most Republican voters have found reasons to return to the fold. Public polls, which have found everything from a single-digit lead for Moore to a single-digit lead for Democrat Doug Jones, find just a single-digit percentage of voters open to a write-in campaign.
“When I hand out fliers, I hear everything from ‘okay, thanks,’ and see people toss ’em in the garbage, to ‘you’re part of George Soros’s liberal conspiracy,’ ” Watson said.
“Just tell me if you get some of that Soros money,” joked Watson’s brother and business partner, Art.
On Tuesday, Moore courted controversy again when he told the religious conservative radio host Bryan Fischer that the billionaire liberal donor had intervened in the race against him to promote an agenda “sexual in nature” and alien to Alabama.
“No matter how much money he’s got, he’s still going to the same place that people who don’t recognize God and morality and accept his salvation are going,” Moore said of Soros. “And it’s not a good place.”
Critics of Moore said that the description of Soros, who is Jewish, veered into anti-Semitism.
Like the 2016 effort to find an alternative to Trump, the write-in hopes for Alabama had started with dream candidates and settled for much less. In the week after Moore’s scandal broke, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) suggested that Attorney General Jeff Sessions — “totally well known and extremely popular in Alabama,” he told CEOs at a Wall Street Journal roundtable — could win back his old seat. Other Republicans suggested that Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.), who lost the Sept. 26 primary to Moore, could get voters to write him in.
In private polling, both options quickly tanked, and they soon vanished from the conversation. The strongest national endorsement, for Busby, came Nov. 28, when anti-Trump conservative pundit Bill Kristol tweeted that Kelly “went out of his way to offer praise” for his former aide.
“How great would it be if Busby’s write-in effort takes off and he gets a ton of Republican votes in Alabama two weeks from now?” Kristol asked. “It would be the single most encouraging thing I could imagine happening in the short term in American politics.”
But no elected Republican ever endorsed a specific write-in candidate. Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), who said he would write in the name of a “distinguished” Republican candidate, did so this week — but did not tell reporters whose name he wrote.
Moore’s opponents made the most of it. In a new TV ad, Jones informs voters of Shelby’s vote, with a narrator saying Moore’s “disturbing” conduct forced the senator’s hand. In an interview, Busby said that the Shelby decision, which has gotten considerable coverage in Alabama, would help his moonshot campaign.
“If Richard C. Shelby is voting for a write-in, that says more succinctly than I ever could how unrepresented the majority of Alabama voters feel in this election,” Busby said, adding that he would have voted for the tax cut that passed the Senate last week.
Busby, however, is the only write-in candidate who still talks about winning the race. Ron Bishop, the Libertarian Party’s official write-in candidate, said that he got a flurry of calls after the Moore scandal broke and that a few days later, the calls stopped.
“It’s easy to get discouraged,” Bishop said. “People have been indoctrinated to think that there’s only two options out there.”
Eulas Kirtdoll Sr., a write-in candidate who organized a Tuesday night forum for his peers, said that all of the non-Moore, non-Jones candidates have struggled to be heard.
"I'm not even polling well in my area," Kirtdoll said. "I'm just being frank with you." To get more attention, he was walking from Marion, where the forum would be held, to Montgomery as a tribute to murdered civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson, with short updates on Facebook.
"My goal was walking 10 miles a day, and I did eight the first day," Kirtdoll said. "That's not bad. If you get eight out of 10 on a test, you get a B."
Busby, who was unlikely to attend Tuesday’s forum, had attracted significant national attention; an Emerson poll, which gave voters his name, found 5 percent of Alabamians ready to write him in. But a source familiar with a call between Busby and potential donors said he made little headway. Asked about the call, Busby said it “didn’t ring a bell,” but that his bid would not depend on donors.
"Clearly this is not a movement that depends on big money or big players," he said.
One week before the election, the rest of the write-in candidates looked at the race as a lost and misbegotten opportunity. Watson, who supported Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) in the 2016 primary, said that he’d lost confidence in his party altogether. He’d watched with horror when Cruz did a Fox News interview that seesawed between questions about scandalized Democrats and questions about Moore.
“In a minute and 20 seconds, he said how horrible Al Franken was, and how if the people of Alabama want Roy Moore they should have him,” Watson said. “Whoa! I was like: Man, you’re not being intellectually honest.”
It was hard, Watson said, to imagine sticking with the Republican Party after the experience of 2017. But putting up a website and 250 signs with his name and face on them had some impact. Some voters, he said, had suggested that he run for another office, perhaps locally. He had not ruled it out, depending on how his life and business were doing.
“If I did it again,” Watson said. “I’d remember to tell my wife first.”