Many politicians might seize on allegations that Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore pursued sexual relations with teenage girls. But Democrat Doug Jones isn’t going there.
The former prosecutor, who won convictions against Ku Klux Klan members for killing four young girls in the infamous 1963 Birmingham church bombing, has his own story to tell as his unlikely campaign gains sudden momentum.
At a Friday night fish fry in this modest, working-class neighborhood outside Mobile, Jones spent more time talking about his own record and what he would do in Washington than about the scandal engulfing Moore.
“Those are issues that he has to address, not me…. serious allegations that he needs to face the people of Alabama and talk about,” Jones told reporters afterward.
“Our message is the same.… Kitchen-table issues — jobs, the economy,” he continued. “Healthcare is such an important issue for the state. We’re a poor state, we’re an unhealthy state and healthcare is probably the biggest issue that’s causing folks to take a look at this race and hit a political reset button.
“My history has been of trying to be a unifying force to reach across the aisle, to find common ground so that we can move the state forward,” he said.
Alabama hasn’t sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in more than 20 years.
And Democrats have downplayed their chances in the race, wary of turning the contest into a liberal cause celebre that could backfire.
But the accusations against Moore — first reported last week by the Washington Post — have turned this race into something close to a tossup, focusing new attention on the Democratic candidate once consider a long shot.
Moore has not fully denied the allegations and now finds himself increasingly isolated as national party leaders withdraw support.
“This is the toughest campaign in Alabama for a Republican in decades,” said Matt Carroll, a GOP activist in Mobile. He worries that Jones could win.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “He has a chance.”
Moore, though, has almost legendary status among Alabama’s Republicans for his unflinching conservatism. Voters reelected him to the state’s high court after he was ousted for failing to remove a Ten Commandments display in the courthouse, and he later stepped aside after refusing to enforce the Supreme Court’s decision supporting gay marriages.
At the same time, many of Moore’s most dedicated voters, including those waving signs to passing motorists Saturday in Mobile, voiced doubts that the women’s claims against their candidate are true.
“The more I pondered the whole thing, I thought, you know, this man — and I’ve known him many, many years — there’s no way he could have done that and lied about it,” said Janet Ogelsby, 70, a retired hairdresser active in party politics, waving to the cars. “We’re not going to let him go under.”
Many also are resentful of outsiders such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other GOP senators who have spoken critically of Moore.
“Republicans need to leave us alone,” said Chu Green, an immigrant from Vietnam who has lived in the country for decades and supports Moore. “We’re smart. We know what we’re doing.”
For his part, Jones has been criss-crossing Alabama, walking in Mobile’s Veterans Day parade before visiting the fish fry and heading back to the central part of the state Saturday.
His path to the Senate requires not only turning out Democrats, who are a minority, but also appealing to centrist Republicans who may reject Moore.
In a sign that strategy may be working, Jones’ campaign lawn signs have begun popping up in unexpected neighborhoods — tonier parts of Birmingham and Mobile’s historic Spring Hill district.
For many voters, it’s not just Moore, but Trump’s election and the sense that the country can do better than the current divisive politics. That compelled Lee Dorsey, a counselor, to stake a sign in her Midtown neighborhood lawn for the first time since she started voting to make the case for Jones.
“The question I have to ask myself is, ‘Who can represent the state?’” said Dorsey, who has voted for both parties. “There are some really good people in Alabama, some really kind people, some really generous people; I do not see Roy Moore being able to represent them all.”
Others see the election as a moment for Alabama to show the rest of the country another side of a state that often ranks low on national measures and carries the burden of its segregated past.
“I remember segregation,” said Hattie Brown, 70, a retiree who still sells cosmetics and holds other jobs. She stopped by the fish fry to meet Jones.
“It feels like history’s in the making and I’m part of history,” she said. She introduced herself to “Sen. Jones.”
Republican leaders in Alabama and Washington are considering their options with a month to go before the Dec. 12 special election for the seat that had been held by Jeff Sessions, now Trump’s attorney general.