When Alabamans head to the polls today in a special election to fill the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions, they will choose between a liberal Democrat and a political outsider accused of sexual misconduct, whose own Republican Party doesn’t want anything to do with him. In other words, they are likely to experience déjà vu.
The contest underway in Alabama between Democrat Doug Jones and Republican Roy Moore bears a striking similarity to last year’s presidential election, when Alabama voters faced a similar choice.
They went overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, who beat Hillary Clinton by more than 28 points in Alabama, the largest margin of victory in a presidential contest in that state since 1972 and among the top Trump-supporting states in the country. Of course, some parts of the state were more intensely pro-Trump than others were. The Fourth Congressional District in Alabama, which stretches from the Georgia state line in the east to the Mississippi state line in the west and includes Moore’s hometown of Gadsden in Etowah County, had the highest per capita vote for Trump in the country (Trump won 80.3 percent of the vote to Hillary Clinton’s 17.4 percent).
State Sen. Phil Williams, who also serves as the head of the Etowah County GOP, calls this part of the state “ground zero” for the populist fervor that propelled Trump to the White House and galvanized support for Moore during the GOP Senate primary in September. In that contest, Moore crushed then-Sen. Luther Strange, who had the backing of President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as well as a McConnell-aligned super-PAC that spent millions advertising on his behalf.
Williams, 52, was among a small group of people then-Gov. Robert Bentley considered appointing to fill Sessions’ Senate seat after Trump nominated Sessions for attorney general. In an interview in his Gadsden office, Williams tells me that during an interview with Bentley around that time, the governor picked up a sticky note from his desk, “and said he had to call Mitch McConnell back again. He said, ‘He’s called me twice already telling me whatever I do don’t send him one of those Freedom Caucus-type people.’ And my first thought was, I guess McConnell has a vested interest but he does not need to be telling the governor who to appoint. But then it was pretty obvious that’s what happened.”
Bentley, who would later step down amid a sex scandal, opted for Strange—a moderate, McConnell-approved pick. Certainly not a “Freedom Caucus type.” When Moore challenged Strange in the GOP primary, Williams was among the first state lawmakers to endorse him. Even after multiple women leveled allegations of sexual misconduct against Moore last month, Williams stuck by him.
“Are the allegations true? I don’t know. No one knows. But we’re talking about events that were purported to have happened 40 years ago,” he says. “The statute of limitations has run out, and Moore has no means of clearing his name except the same court of public opinion that is slandering him right now.”
In the absence of compelling evidence, Williams, like most Moore supporters in Alabama, is willing to take the former state supreme court justice at his word. But Williams’ staunch support of Moore is also borne partly from the strong-arm tactics McConnell and the Republican establishment employed in Washington. Williams says a number of other viable primary candidates chose not to run, “because every political consultant they tried to hire had already been told they would be black-listed if they helped anyone outside the Luther Strange campaign.”
Moore Has Not Run a Conventional Campaign
Thomas Sparrow has a similar story about how he came to be involved with the Moore campaign. Sparrow is a garrulous young entrepreneur in his early thirties with a mop of brown hair and a thick Alabama drawl. He runs a software engineering company he founded after graduating from Auburn University, owns an RV park and some student apartments in Auburn, and is an active member of several business and civic organizations in the area. Before a few months ago, he had never worked on a political campaign in his life. Now, he’s chairman of Moore’s Lee County Committee and helps run the campaign’s social media operation.
Sparrow says the Moore campaign initially approached him to help out with IT, not because he’s an expert on running IT operations for political campaigns but because when Moore announced back in the spring that he was running in the GOP primary, the Senate Leadership Fund threatened to blacklist any firms that worked with the Moore campaign. Sparrow says none of the usual Virginia-based firms would do it, so the Moore campaign asked him and he agreed.
“I have no interest in ever doing anything else on any other campaign,” Sparrow says over dinner at a bustling Cracker Barrel in the town of Opelika, just outside Auburn. “I see this as a Christian duty, for me personally, because this man has unabashedly stood for the unborn, the Ten Commandments, for traditional marriage. He’s sincere in his beliefs.”
Moore is of course an unconventional candidate, so it’s no wonder he’s run an unconventional campaign—meeting in small churches, avoiding the press, running few ads, and no phone bank operation. Vaughn Hillyard of NBC News tweeted last week about Moore’s “ghost campaign” in Alabama: “6 staffers. Top 2 advisers=Florida operatives. On its 3rd comms director in 2 months. Current TV spokesperson an Ohio resident. No campaign storefront. No canvassing or phone banking operation.”
Driving around the state you’ll hear Jones ads on the radio all day long. Most are open appeals to Republican voters, touting his love of guns and hunting, insisting he won’t let Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi tell him what to do. Moore supporters chalk this up to astroturfing: spending money on lawn signs and airtime to make Jones’ support appear larger than it is, talking to reporters from The New Yorker about his passion for firearms and how he’s a better shot than Moore. (“Let me tell you: Absolutely, I could out-shoot him. Maybe that’s the way to settle this, since he won’t debate me. Not in a duel, just target shooting with pistols, rifles, and shotguns.”)
The Moore campaign has relied on a much looser network of conservative grassroots support, which Sparrow helps coordinate, amazingly, directly with Moore. While we talk and eat at the Cracker Barrel, Sparrow gets a text message from Moore, a link to a PolitiFact article about a deceptive ad—“mostly false,” in PolitiFact parlance—by Jones, alleging that as a judge Moore went easy on sex offenders.
Sparrow apologizes for having to respond at the table but explains he’s the unofficial point man for much of the campaign’s Facebook activity. He texts back, “Another completely FALSE ad put out there by our opponent according to Politifact,” and gets a thumbs up emoji from Moore in reply. “That’s how I know we’re good to post,” Sparrow says.
The Populist Case For Moore Isn’t About Moore, But Trump
Like most conservative Alabamans and the pastors who have endorsed Moore, Sparrow has known about Moore for years and admired his principled stand against gay marriage. He even donated to one of his campaigns for Alabama Supreme Court. But he’s especially attracted to Moore as a disrupter.
“I go for the biggest flamethrower possible because the system needs to be disrupted,” he says. He says that’s a big part of his reason for backing Moore. “You ever seen the movie ‘Jaws’? He’s Captain Quint in ‘Jaws’. People in Washington aren’t used to people like him.”
Why would Alabama businessmen like Sparrow want a disrupter like Moore, or Trump? Part of the reason is the dismal state of Alabama’s economy, consistently ranked as one of the worst in the country. The state has a large manufacturing sector, from paper to textiles to wood- and metal-product manufacturing, but some areas of the state have been hit hard in recent decades because of foreign competition, especially the textile plants.
Our waitress that night at Cracker Barrel is 44-year-old Chris Williams, an ardent Moore supporter who has worked as a waitress for 15 years and as a substitute teacher for almost 20 years. Before that, she worked in a now-defunct Russell Corp. sewing plant in La Fayette, which closed in 2001 along with several others.
“We just couldn’t compete with Mexico and Central America,” she says, adding that without the Kia manufacturing plant in West Point, Georgia, near the Alabama state line, her hometown of Valley “would be a ghost town.”
Williams and Sparrow blame the loss of these plants on NAFTA and CAFTA, the free trade agreements Trump railed against during his campaign last year and has promised to renegotiate or scrap altogether. Like many Trump supporters, they say the Republican Party is responsible for those deals and blind to the ways they have affected some parts of the country. “I have more sympathy for Bernie Sanders supporters than I do for Mitt Romney and the GOP establishment,” says Sparrow.
Not that Moore is making free trade or the state’s economy much of an issue in this election. In his rare public appearances, Moore tends to hammer away at a few core issues that appeal to his base: abortion, gay marriage, immigration, and, bizarrely, the prevalence of Sharia law in the Midwest.
What might put Moore over the top on election night isn’t his base but the larger pool of Trump voters, who see in the choice between Moore and Jones a chance to support the president they voted for in overwhelming numbers. They know Jones will fight to undermine Trump’s agenda, and so does Trump. At a campaign-style rally held last Friday in Pensacola, Florida, just 25 miles from Alabama, Trump urged the crowd to vote for Moore. After having reluctantly supported Strange in the GOP primary, Trump endorsed Moore earlier this month, tweeting, “Democrats refusal to give even one vote for massive Tax Cuts is why we need Republican Roy Moore to win in Alabama.”
At the rally, Trump warned his supporters about putting Jones in office: “We cannot afford to lose a seat in the very, very close United States Senate. We can’t afford it, folks. We can’t. We can’t afford to have a liberal Democrat who is completely controlled by Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer.”
Alabama voters meanwhile are well aware that McConnell, who said in November that he believes Moore’s accusers, has also suggested that, should Moore win, he will not be seated. McConnell has since backed off that threat, but still believes the Senate Ethics Committee should investigate Moore.
The effect hasn’t been lost on Alabama voters, says Sparrow. “The people of Alabama get it. The liberal media and Mitch McConnell have tried to come in and tell us that our hero, our Davy Crockett, is not who we thought he was.”