BIRMINGHAM, Ala.—When Donald Trump won the Republican nomination, an early sign of his success was that he was running respectably in unlikely corners of the country. He won over wealthy retirees at an exclusive South Carolina country club. He packed an amphitheater in Boca Raton before romping in Florida’s primary. He locked down the nomination by crushing Ted Cruz in the Philadelphia and New York City suburbs.
One of the early signs that something is badly amiss for Republicans in Alabama is that Roy Moore, 70, the scandal-plagued Senate standard-bearer for the GOP, has become toxic in the state’s well-off Republican suburbs. When I stopped by the Alabama GOP headquarters outside Birmingham on Monday, no one wanted to talk about Moore. “We’ve got no comment on the race,” said the party’s communications director.
Driving outside the Birmingham city limits, it’s common to see “Doug Jones for Senate” signs—with no mention of the Democratic nominee’s partisan affiliation—nestled on well-manicured lawns. It’s almost impossible to find evidence that Roy Moore’s campaign exists in this suburban corner of the state.
In interviews with a dozen self-identified Republicans outside a shopping center in the affluent, heavily GOP suburb of Mountain Brook, only one said he would be voting for Moore. The surrounding precinct gave Trump 65 percent of the vote in last year’s general election. “I just can’t vote for the pedophile,” said one woman, who has never voted for a Democrat in her life. Several added that they wouldn’t be voting for Jones, either. They’d either stay home or write in the name of another Republican candidate.
“The upper-middle-income areas in Alabama are leaning towards Doug Jones because they don’t want to be embarrassed. They’re willing to consider a Democrat in rare circumstances. That’s what it boils down to,” said GOP state Sen. Slade Blackwell, whose district spans the Birmingham suburbs.
The math for Democrats to win in Alabama is exceptionally difficult, but this race is proving to be a perfect storm. Moore is facing allegations of sexual misconduct that are as damaging as it gets in politics. He’s now facing a chorus of Republican senators in Washington calling on him to withdraw from the race. As state Sen. Cam Ward put it: “We are not known for dull politics, but I’ve never seen anything quite like this.”
To have any chance of winning, Jones needs to forge an unlikely coalition between suburban whites and African-Americans in a state that’s deeply polarized along racial lines. Democrats typically struggle to hit double-digit support among white voters here, but Jones is winning 34 percent of them, according to a JMC Analytics survey conducted last weekend, giving him a 4-point lead over Moore in the poll.
“The traditional coalition for Democrats to win in the Deep South involves African-American Democrats and small-town rural populist whites,” said Alabama Democratic pollster Zac McCrary. “The Jones coalition looks much different. He’s getting support from African-Americans along with suburban, exurban, and urban white voters who are pretty conservative but who aren’t motivated by these hot-button cultural issues.”
For his part, Jones is running a very low-key, cautious race. His campaign is saying as little about his Democratic affiliation as possible. His latest ad features numerous Republicans who say they can’t support Moore. “Don’t decency and integrity matter anymore?” one woman says in the ad.
Jones was scheduled to be in Washington for a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee fundraiser on Monday, according to NBC News, but he decided to remain in Alabama. Asked by National Journal whether he would support Sen. Chuck Schumer as his party’s Senate leader, Jones declined to commit.
“I am not a lapdog for anybody. What’s ironic about all this is that there’s so much hand-wringing going on for both sides about one vote. This is not about one vote,” Jones said. “This is about who we are as a people. That should be the only issue. I’ll be that independent voice.”
All told, the pieces are in place for a historic upset next month—a stunner that would give Democrats a small chance to win back the majority next November.
Indeed, the race has become something of a political-science experiment over whether the unstoppable force of scandal can dislodge the immovable object of Republican partisanship in the Deep South. Rank-and-file Republicans in Alabama now believe Jones has a good chance of winning, and they are helpless to do anything about it given Moore’s rock-solid base of evangelical support. Any Republican politicians who tried to remove Moore from the ballot or urge a write-in would face backlash from his base.
“You need three things to happen for a Democrat to win in Alabama: the right political climate, a qualified Democratic candidate who is able to put together the resources to run an aggressive campaign, and a deeply flawed Republican candidate—to put it mildly,” McCrary said.