How Doug Jones Pulled Off a Shock Win Over Roy Moore in Deep-Red Alabama
The Democrat surged to a surprise victory Tuesday night, thanks in part to a focus on African-American voters—and, according to Moore supporters, the GOP abandoning their man.
MONTGOMERY, Alabama—Quentin Bell parked his Dodge pickup truck on a quiet street in Selma on Tuesday.
It was early afternoon and he was taking a break from shuttling voters to polling stations. He’d made about a dozen trips so far. But he showed no signs of tiring. In fact, he seemed exuberant talking about the U.S. Senate election that was playing out in his home state.
Dressed in a button-down shirt, jeans, and boots, Bell was there to deliver a message to the people of Selma. And if you didn’t hear it from him, you could read it on his car. There, written in white over the soft gray paint of his truck, read the admonition: “Get your ass out and go vote.” Scribbled on a window was a number residents could text if they needed a ride to cast their ballots.
Bell, who runs a Selma-based nonprofit support service for LGBT people called TKO Society, had already voted. He said the people he was driving were motivated not necessarily by a deep affinity for the Democrat in the race, Doug Jones, but by a deep disdain for his opponent, Roy Moore, who once waxed nostalgically about how strong the family structure was during the time of slavery.
“It’s not necessarily that black voters like myself are showing up particularly for Doug Jones. A lot of us are showing up to be anti-Roy Moore,” Bell, 29, told The Daily Beast.
Moore lost on Tuesday. And it was in no small part because people like Bell wrote messages on their pickups and made countless trips around their towns, all in the names of civic engagement. Jones won Dallas County, which encompasses Selma, with 10,492 votes to Moore’s 3,485. And black-voter turnout, according to exit polling, was 28 percent—the same rate they turned out for Barack Obama in 2012.
“I’m going to support the candidate who is showing up in our community and is going to make the most impact in the lives of the working class,” Bell said. “That’s the candidate I’m going for.”
Jones pinned his electoral hopes on high African-American turnout, in a state where many Democrats had become resigned over time to the fact that Republicans would almost always win federal elections. For the first time, they felt like they were living in a battleground state in which their vote mattered.
In the final weeks of the campaign, both campaigns worked feverishly to encourage their key voter bases to show up at the polls on Election Day.
For Moore, that was Alabama’s Christian evangelical population, which has stood by his side for decades. For Jones, it was African-Americans, who make up a significant bloc of the state’s Democrats. Jones—who is best known for successfully prosecuting two Ku Klux Klan members who bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham—spent the closing days campaigning hard in the black community.
In the closing days of the campaign, Jones brought key black figures into the state, including Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, and NBA legend Charles Barkley, in an effort to turn out as many black voters in the state as possible.
The historical significance of Jones’ election was not lost in Selma, known for its pivotal role in the civil-rights movement. Jones traveled there on Saturday to speak with community leaders at the Brown Chapel AME Church, which served as the starting point for the Selma-to-Montgomery marches that resulted in the “Bloody Sunday” conflict.
“The privilege and honor to vote for a decent person in a time of great corruption has brought me a lot of joy. And to be here in Selma where the right to vote was hard-earned, I’m standing on the shoulders of people who gave me this right,” Karen, 62, told The Daily Beast as she was walking the streets.
What was supposed to be a victory party for Moore here on Tuesday night ended in sorrow and defeat. Enthusiastic supporters had begun referring to the controversial former chief justice of the Alabama state Supreme Court as “Senator Roy Moore.” They vowed to make the news media pay a price for its coverage of the sexual misconduct allegations against Moore.
A saxophonist was on stage blaring tunes for a wired crowd that was dancing with joy for nearly two hours. Suddenly, the saxophonist was pulled from the stage, and low-volume recorded music replaced the rambunctious atmosphere of what was supposed to be a celebratory night. While supporters waited for Moore to address them, they sang Christian hymns and told themselves the race wasn’t yet over.
The emcee who introduced Moore said that “we do not have a final decision on the outcome tonight,” noting that Alabama state law requires a recount if the final tally is within 0.5 percent. But with all precincts reporting late Tuesday night, Jones was ahead by more than 1.5 percentage points.
Still, Moore refused to concede.
“When the vote is this close, it is not over,” Moore told supporters. “Let's go home and sleep on it."
While the result cuts the GOP’s already-slim Senate majority in half, establishment Republicans will be able to find a silver lining from Jones’ win. Stephen Bannon, the Breitbart chairman and former Trump White House chief strategist, was Moore’s top surrogate in the final weeks of the campaign, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has been a top target of both Bannon and Moore. McConnell has in the past criticized his party’s voters for choosing far-right candidates in Republican primaries who stand less of a chance in a general election.
“Alabama Republicans began with a clear choice: to vote for a reliable conservative who would represent their values, or a wholly unfit and unqualified caricature that wore a tiny cowboy hat and flashed a tiny pistol but helped them feel independent,” a Senate Republican aide, granted anonymity to give a candid assessment of Tuesday’s result, told The Daily Beast. “Hopefully these results come with a lesson: As we balance a desire to reject out of state influence, we don’t do so at the full cost of our dignity.”
With Moore’s win in the GOP primary earlier this year and Bannon’s efforts to boost candidates like him around the country ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, McConnell is likely to use Tuesday night’s result to continue making the case that nominating candidates far outside the mainstream of the GOP bodes poorly for the party’s majorities in Congress—and, in turn, for Trump’s agenda.
Moore’s supporters blamed his loss on the Republican Party as a whole for running away from the candidate when the allegations first surfaced.
“President Trump needs to call up Mitch McConnell tomorrow and say that you lost us this seat,” James Calkins, 31, told The Daily Beast as he left Moore’s election headquarters here late Tuesday night. “He needs to go around this country and look for every single person that went against Roy Moore, and find a good candidate that’s running against them.”
Jones is the first Democrat to win a statewide election in Alabama since 1996. By the time he could grasp his feat, he was almost speechless.
“I gotta tell you, I think that I’ve been waiting all my life and now I just don’t know what the hell to say,” the senator-elect said as the last pieces of confetti fell near the stage.
“At the end of the day this entire race has been about dignity and respect. This campaign has about the rule of law,” Jones added. “This campaign has been about common courtesy and decency and making sure everyone in this state gets a fair shake.”
—Gideon Resnick contributed reporting.