MONTGOMERY, Alabama—Dorothy Autrey had never been to a political rally before Saturday.
Autrey, a native Alabamian and a retired college professor, never really had a reason to. An African-American Democrat, she lives in a state that has in recent years sent—almost exclusively—conservative white men to Washington. And it hasn’t been close.
But this year is different. A nail-biter of a special election for the U.S. Senate in deep-red Alabama has caught the attention of the entire country, with the result—no matter who wins—yielding major implications for President Donald Trump’s legislative agenda heading into 2018 that will affect Americans in every state. And Alabamians on both sides of the Senate race are feeling, perhaps for the first time, what it’s like to live in a battleground state like Ohio or Florida.
This particular election has put a spotlight on certain communities trying to dust off the political cobwebs and, for some members, become engaged in the political process for the first time in decades. On Saturday, Autrey showed up an hour early to Democratic candidate Doug Jones’ rally here on Alabama State University’s campus.
“I’ve voted since I was 18. So this is not my first time having interest in a race. But I never thought I would see a Democrat elected to the Senate from Alabama,” Autrey told The Daily Beast. “The fact that he has a chance is really exciting and I’m hopeful—I pray that he is elected.”
Historically, minority groups in Alabama have not had effective—if any—interactions with the political system. While African-Americans and LGBT people make up a significant bloc of the state’s Democratic electorate, progressives in Alabama are vastly outnumbered. So when Trump nominated then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) to be attorney general—creating an open Senate seat—few realistically expected that Democrats could have a chance to flip it.
But for the first time in many Alabamians’ lifetimes, those same minority groups are primed to tip the scales to a Democrat in a statewide campaign. And many of them are fired up not necessarily because of Jones—but because of his opponent, former Alabama State Supreme Court judge Roy Moore.
“I feel very strongly about Roy Moore not being in the Senate,” Ashley, who asked only to be identified by her first name, told The Daily Beast. “[Jones] has shown as a prosecutor his recognition of how racism has played out in Alabama by prosecuting the KKK.”
Ashley, a 32-year-old criminal defense attorney in Montgomery who says she never attended a political rally before Saturday, was referring to Jones’ prosecution of two Ku Klux Klan members who bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, killing four young African-American girls. At the time, in the late 1990s, Jones was serving as the U.S. attorney for the northern district of Alabama, a position for which he was nominated by President Bill Clinton.
Autrey and Ashley weren’t alone. Johnnie Dallas, 73, says she hadn’t been to a politically rally since Barack Obama first ran. Brenda Johnson, 67, last attended one in the early 1970s—and it wasn’t even in Alabama. While each of them are heartened by recent statewide polls showing a close contest between Jones and Moore, they know that flipping the Senate seat—and giving Democrats an even better chance at regaining control of the chamber in 2018—is a significant challenge that will, in the end, come down to turnout.
“We can’t just sit here and not go vote. We must get out the vote. And you have to understand that if you don’t vote, we don’t stand a chance,” Dallas told The Daily Beast. “We are powerful in numbers, but we’ve got to get that number moving.”
While much of the national attention surrounding the Alabama race has centered on the multiple women who have accused Moore of sexual misconduct—including child molestation—neither Jones nor his surrogates on the campaign trail in Selma and Montgomery on Saturday mentioned the allegations. Jones was asked about the subject at a press conference, but he did not take the bait.
Even before the allegations first surfaced a month ago, Jones and his supporters have focused on Moore’s history of controversial remarks that have ostracized communities of color and LGBT people—and they, in turn, have attempted to use that history to portray Moore as a racist bigot.
The Dec. 12 contest has energized this swath of the electorate in Alabama who had, over time, become resigned to the fact that they would always lose to Republicans in these statewide races. As recently as last year, for example, Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the state by nearly 30 percentage points. Alabamians have not sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1992 when voters here re-elected Richard Shelby, who switched parties in 1994 and is the other incumbent.
The challenge for Jones and his campaign will be to turn out black voters who—like those who traveled here to see Jones speak—are enthusiastic about the race but remain uninspired because of Democrats’ abysmal electoral history in Alabama. Black voters account for 27 percent of the population in Alabama, and a significant chunk of the Democratic voter base. Jones’ campaign is hoping to turn out as many black voters as the last time Barack Obama was on the ballot—a rate of around 28 percent. But the candidate and his team face some headwinds that remain outside of their control—namely, the fact that the special election for Sessions’ former seat is taking place in an off year, in December, and on a Tuesday.
“We just feel like the stakes are just literally too high not to vote,” Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL), the only Democrat in Alabama’s congressional delegation, told The Daily Beast on Friday in her home city of Birmingham. “African-American voters are just as motivated as the general base of the Democratic party. We’re excited about an opportunity to win a statewide office—and, more importantly, one of this import. And I think that when I talk to my constituents, they all believe that we deserve to have a candidate, a senator, whose integrity and character are not going to be always in question.”
Despite having been removed from office twice for defying the law, Moore still enjoys immense support across Alabama, particularly among social conservatives who admire his defiance and his adherence to far-right causes no matter the consequences.
Moore has a history of controversial remarks and stances on issues involving race and civil rights. Like Trump, he was convinced that former President Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Moore also argued that Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim elected to Congress, should not serve because of his religion.
Just a few weeks ago, Moore lamented the fact that the Supreme Court created “new rights” in 1965, the same year the Voting Rights Act was signed into law. In September, an African-American rally attendee asked Moore when America was last “great.” Moore appeared to suggest that the last time America was “great” was during slavery.
“I think it was great at the time when families were united—even though we had slavery. They cared for one another,” Moore said. “Our families were strong, our country had a direction.”
Through his outreach to the African-American community, Jones has sought to contrast his record on civil rights with Moore’s. On Saturday, Jones met in Selma with community members at the Brown Chapel AME Church, which served as the starting point for the marches in 1965 that resulted in the “Bloody Sunday” conflict. Standing at his side were Sewell and Deval Patrick, the former Massachusetts governor-turned private equity executive. Later in Montgomery, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) stumped for Jones, who stressed voter turnout more than anything else on Saturday—and barely mentioned Moore.
“We’ve got a unique moment right here. It has been given to us, but we’ve got to seize that opportunity,” Jones told the crowd here. “Only with your help, we can move that needle for Alabama to be on the right side of history—the right side of equality, the right side of justice.”
But some worry that Jones’ efforts might amount to too little, too late.
Daroneshia Duncan is an African-American transgender woman and a lifelong Alabamian. Four years ago, she created a group called Transgender Advocates Knowledgeable and Empowering (TAKE) that serves as a support system for black transgender women in the greater Birmingham area. She is the executive director of the group, which currently serves as many as 35 Alabamians.
“If you’re not what they consider as the normal citizen or a normal Alabamian, then you shouldn’t have a voice—it’s like you’re an outcast,” Duncan told The Daily Beast during an sit-down at her home in the West End Manor neighborhood of Birmingham. “Being trans is simply my gender identity. It doesn’t strip my rights as a human being.”
Moore has been a staunch and steadfast opponent of LGBT rights throughout his career in public life. He has suggested that homosexuality should be deemed illegal, and in 2015, he was suspended from the state Supreme Court for refusing to acknowledge the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. In his stump speeches, Moore often names “the transgenders” as a threat, and said at one point that they “don’t have rights” according to the high court. Moore has even cited Jones’ “very liberal stance on transgenderism” as a reason to shun a public debate with his opponent.
“A vote for [Moore] is like adding fuel to the fire. We’ve already got a fire that’s burning now and we’d be adding more fuel to it. And we shouldn’t allow it to happen,” Duncan said.
But getting overlooked voter groups in Alabama politically engaged for the first time in possibly a generation has proven itself to be a daunting task. Duncan and others throughout the state who share her political beliefs have sometimes found it difficult to convince their fellow African-Americans to vote for Jones. Many of them feel so disillusioned with the political process that they are under the impression that nothing can ever change for them. But Duncan feels that it’s up to her to change that mindset.
“Jones is not the typical conservative white man that’s looking for power,” Duncan said. “He’s looking to advocate and fight for all people as a whole no matter if you don’t relate to him or can’t identify with him. And I think that’s a lot of what’s going on in the White House. We want people of America to be held to a certain standard.”
Another equally problematic barrier for Jones’ candidacy is his low name recognition. Duncan said she has encountered younger African-Americans in Alabama who simply aren’t familiar with Jones’ history as a prosecutor, which she argues is key to his record on civil rights.
“Why not tell people his history?” Duncan lamented. “It can play in his best interests because if I’m a person of color—these four little girls were black, these people that bombed the church were white, and this man, Doug Jones, is white. So that says something.”
Eva Kendrick, the Alabama state director for the gay rights-focused Human Rights Campaign, argues that this Senate election could be a turning point for a progressive uprising not only in Alabama but in other Republican-leaning states.
“It feels, in a way, that we’ve been building toward this moment—where progressive folks feel like there’s a common cause to rally for and to rally voters to,” Kendrick, a 10th generation Alabamian who currently lives in Birmingham with her wife, told The Daily Beast. “And in this case, it’s the election of Doug Jones.”
Voters like Ashley are optimistic that they can seize that moment. But, like the Washington-based Democrats who have hesitated to deploy a war chest of resources and high-profile surrogates to the state, she acknowledges Alabama’s unfriendly relationship with the Democratic party, in addition to the overwhelming enthusiasm of Moore’s core base of supporters.
“I’m hopeful but I also have a little bit of caution,” Ashley said. “Alabama usually goes very red in elections, and we’re not in the safe zone yet as far as the election goes. I think it’s going to be a tough fight.”