Once a long shot, Democrat Doug Jones wins Alabama Senate race

Upset shaves Republicans’ unstable majority to a single seat
Doug Jones speaks at a campaign rally in Birmingham, Ala., prior to Tuesday's election.
Doug Jones speaks at a campaign rally in Birmingham, Ala., prior to Tuesday's election.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Doug Jones, a Democratic former prosecutor who mounted a seemingly quixotic Senate campaign in the face of Republican dominance here, defeated his scandal-scarred opponent, Roy Moore, after a brutal campaign marked by accusations of sexual abuse and child molestation against the Republican, according to The Associated Press.

The upset delivered an unimagined victory for Democrats and shaved Republicans’ unstable Senate majority to a single seat.

Jones’ victory could have drastic consequences on the national level, snarling Republicans’ legislative agenda in Washington and opening, for the first time, a realistic but still difficult path for Democrats to capture the Senate next year. It amounted to a stinging snub of President Donald Trump, who broke with much of his party and fully embraced Moore’s candidacy, seeking to rally support for him in the closing days of the campaign.

Propelled by a backlash against Moore, an intensely polarizing former judge who was accused of sexually assaulting young girls, Jones overcame the state’s daunting demographics and deep cultural conservatism. His campaign targeted African-American voters with a sprawling, muscular turnout operation, and appealed to educated whites to turn their backs on the Republican Party.

Those pleas appeared to pay off Tuesday, as precincts in Birmingham and its suburbs reported heavy turnout throughout the day, and Jones ran up a commanding lead in the state’s other urban centers. The abandonment of Moore by affluent white voters may have proved decisive, allowing Jones to transcend Alabama’s rigid racial polarization and assemble a winning coalition.

To progressive voters here, Jones’ victory marked a long-awaited rejection of the divisive brand of politics that Alabama has inevitably rewarded even as some of its Southern neighbors were turning to more moderate leaders.

At an election-eve rally in Birmingham, Jones cast the campaign as just such a political crucible and alluded darkly to Alabama having opted in the past for “a path that has not been productive.” Grouping his embattled opponent with other specters of Alabama history, Jones urged voters to avoid new humiliation.

“We’ve got to make sure that in this crossroads in Alabama’s history, we take the right road,” Jones said, adding: “We’ve lagged behind in industry. We’ve lagged behind in education. We’ve lagged behind in health care.”

The campaign, originally envisioned as a pro forma affair to fill the Senate seat left vacant by Jeff Sessions, now the attorney general, developed in its final months into a referendum on Alabama’s identity, Trump’s political influence and the willingness of hard-right voters to tolerate a candidate accused of preying on teenage girls.

Jones, 63, best known for prosecuting two Ku Klux Klansmen responsible for bombing Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, offered himself chiefly as a figure of conciliation. He vowed to pursue traditional Democratic policy aims, in areas such as education and health care, but also pledged to cross party lines in Washington and partner with Sen. Richard Shelby, the long-tenured Alabama Republican, to defend the state’s interests.

Moore did little in the general election to make himself more acceptable to conventional Republicans. To the extent he delivered a campaign message, it was a rudimentary one, showcasing his support for Trump and highlighting Jones’ party affiliation. But after facing allegations in early November that he sexually abused a 14-year-old girl and pursued relationships with other young teenagers, Moore became a scarce presence on the campaign trail.

The election is a painful setback for Republicans in Washington, who have already struggled to enact policies of any scale and now face even tougher legislative math. Moore’s success in the Republican primary here, and the subsequent general-election fiasco, may deter mainstream Republicans from seeking office in 2018 and could prompt entrenched incumbents to consider retirement.

But there is also a measure of relief for some party leaders that Moore will not join the chamber, carrying with him a radioactive cloud of scandal. A number of Republicans, including Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, had indicated that Moore would face an ethics investigation if he were elected, and possibly expulsion from the Senate.

Trump and Republican activists would most likely have opposed such a measure, setting up a potentially drastic, monthslong clash within the Republican Party, now averted thanks to Jones.

Still, that relief comes at a steep price. Before the election in Alabama, Republicans were heavily favored to keep control of the Senate in 2018, when Democrats must defend 25 seats, including 10 in states that Trump carried in 2016. Just two or three Republican-held seats appear vulnerable, in Arizona, Nevada and Tennessee.

But after Jones is sworn in, Republicans will control only 51 seats, creating a plausible route for Democrats to take over.

If the election burst into the national consciousness in early November, with the sex-abuse claims against Moore, it was an intensifying political migraine for Republican leaders months before then. Trump’s decision to pluck Sessions from the Senate in early 2017 left a vacant Senate seat in the hands of an Alabama governor, Robert Bentley, who was under investigation, and the governor named the state attorney general who was scrutinizing him, Luther Strange, to the post.

With Strange politically tainted from the start, a series of other self-inflicted setbacks befell the party. Multiple Republicans stepped up to challenge Strange, including Moore and Rep. Mo Brooks, a Huntsville-area conservative. After Bentley resigned in disgrace, his successor, Kay Ivey, moved up the date of the special election by nearly a year, denying Strange a chance to establish himself before seeking election in his own right.

Efforts to prop up Strange over the summer faltered. When a super PAC backed by Senate leaders intervened to help him, it did so by demolishing Brooks in television ads — a move that backfired when his supporters flocked to Moore. Trump endorsed Strange and campaigned for him but wondered aloud during a campaign rally about whether he had backed the wrong man.

The comedy of errors culminated in the early fall, after Moore defeated Strange handily in a runoff election, and most party leaders grudgingly endorsed him — just in time for a scandal of unmatched luridness to appear.

The Washington Post reported in early November that Moore, while a local prosecutor in his 30s, had made sexual overtures to four teenage girls, one of whom was 14 at the time of their encounter. Other women soon stepped forward to say Moore had made advances on them too, one of whom charged him with committing sexual assault.

National Republican officials abandoned Moore’s campaign as his defense proved wanting — he initially said he had never pursued a girl without receiving her mother’s permission before subsequently denying he knew any of the women.

Yet after it appeared that Moore remained viable, Trump offered a Thanksgiving week defense of the candidate and urged Alabamians to oppose Jones.

Trump’s intervention helped stabilize Moore’s campaign. When the president made the case for the Republican’s candidacy at a Friday rally in Gulf Coast town of Pensacola, Florida, just over the Alabama line, Jones’ campaign saw their internal polling advantage dissipate.

Yet the conclusion of the campaign was largely to Jones’ benefit.

Money poured in for him. Jones raised $10.2 million in just over a month and a half and third-party groups augmented his candidacy, helping him finance a massive voter-turnout effort after he had dominated the state’s airwaves for weeks.

He raced across the state with a handful of out-of-state surrogates and one local celebrity, basketball star Charles Barkley, in the race’s last days, focusing his attention on Alabama’s cities, college towns and heavily black communities.

Instead of facing questions about his alleged sexual abuse, Moore not only avoided the news media, he largely vanished from the campaign altogether in the race’s last week.

Moore returned to Alabama for a rally in the rural, southeast corner of the state on Monday with Stephen Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist.

But the most memorable comments from the event did not come from Moore. Rather, they emerged from Bannon, who mocked NBC’s Joe Scarborough, a University of Alabama graduate, for not attending a more prestigious university; Moore’s wife, Kayla, who angrily denied charges the couple was anti-Semitic by noting “one of our attorneys is a Jew;” and an Army friend of the candidate, who recalled the two of them being uneasy walking into a Vietnam brothel to find “pretty girls” who Moore found too young.

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