Rural, religious, and shaped by stark racial polarization, Alabama is one of the most Republican states in the country. Its voters haven’t supported a Democrat for president in over 40 years. It hasn’t elected a Democrat to the United States Senate since 1992. It’s been nearly 10 years since a Democrat won any of its statewide offices. Last year, Donald Trump wiped out Hillary Clinton by nearly 28 percentage points. It would take a perfect storm of events for a Democrat to have a shot at winning anything above the district level. And ahead of a special election for Senate, that storm is gathering strength by the day.
It began at the start of the year with a sex scandal that consumed Alabama’s politics and led to the resignation of Gov. Robert Bentley under threat of impeachment. It also ensnared state Attorney General Luther Strange, who was investigating Bentley’s office when he was appointed to temporarily fill the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions. Sunk in part by the appearance of a quid pro quo exchange, Strange would lose the chance to serve a full six-year term, falling to Roy Moore in the Republican primary.
Corruption in the state GOP is one part of the storm; Moore himself is another. An evangelical crusader for “traditional morality” and a fixture of Alabama political life, Moore has twice served on the state Supreme Court, and has twice been removed for violating federal court orders. A vocal opponent of same-sex marriage, he first made national headlines after he commissioned a monument to the Ten Commandments and refused to move it from state grounds. Even in Alabama, Moore is a controversial figure, alienating affluent suburban conservatives as he’s built a devoted base among white evangelicals and rural conservatives. That base helped him trounce Strange, setting up a likely victory in the general election against Democrat Doug Jones, a former district attorney who successfully prosecuted the Klansmen responsible for the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which killed four children.
But favored to win isn’t the same as guaranteed to win, and the combination of Moore’s fraught history and divisive persona gave Jones a sliver of a chance to score an upset. Still, Democrats would need one more break to turn this special election into a truly competitive race.
They got that break last week when, based on the testimony of four different women, the Washington Post broke news that Moore had “initiated sexual contact” with a 14-year-old girl while working as a 32-year-old prosecutor. He had also pursued relationships with three other teenage girls, all between the ages of 16 and 18. Moore and his allies in the Alabama GOP and conservative media denied the accusations, presenting them as an eleventh-hour conspiracy meant to derail his bid for Senate (although Moore “didn’t dispute“ that he dated girls as young as 16). Despite this, the allegations took a toll on his campaign. By the weekend, multiple polls showed Moore either tied with or trailing Jones, who picked up critical support from disenchanted Republicans. Wary of what might come next, national Republicans began distancing themselves from Moore with qualified calls for him to leave the race. “These allegations are disqualifying if true. Anyone who would do this to a child has no place in public office, let alone the United States Senate,” said Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
On Monday another woman, Beverly Young Nelson, accused Moore of sexually assaulting her when she was 16. Speaking during a press conference with attorney Gloria Allred, Nelson said Moore first approached her in 1975 at the Gadsden, Alabama, restaurant where she waitressed. One night, Moore offered her a ride home, which she accepted. But rather than get on the highway, Moore drove to a secluded location behind the restaurant, where Nelson says he assaulted her:
Mr. Moore reached over and began groping me, putting his hands on my breasts. I tried to open my car door to leave, but he reached over and locked it so I could not get out. I tried fighting him off, while yelling at him to stop, but instead of stopping he began squeezing my neck attempting to force my head onto his crotch. I continued to struggle. I was determined that I was not going to allow him to force me to have sex with him. I was terrified. He was also trying to pull my shirt off. I thought that he was going to rape me. I was twisting and struggling and begging him to stop. I had tears running down my face.
“At some point he gave up,” she continued. “He then looked at me and said, ‘You are a child. I am the district attorney of Etowah County, if you tell anyone about this, no one will believe you.’ ”
With this story, national Republicans dropped their qualifiers. “I believe the individuals speaking out against Roy Moore spoke with courage and truth, proving he is unfit to serve in the United States Senate and he should not run for office,” said Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, calling on the Senate to expel Moore should he win his race. Texas Sen. John Cornyn withdrew his endorsement of Moore, and others are sure to follow. Even if Moore retains his support among Alabama Republican officials, the aforementioned polls suggest he will lose additional ground with actual voters.
We don’t yet know if Moore is dead in the water. Given his deep support among white evangelicals in the state, he may still win. But if there was ever a chance for a Democrat to win in Alabama, this is it. And Jones, along with his allies in the national Democratic Party—themselves energized by strong turnout and performance in the Virginia statewide elections—seem keen to capitalize on the situation, although with as little fanfare as possible.
There’s no question that Roy Moore’s fate has huge implications for both President Trump and the Republican Party. Losing the race would cut the GOP’s advantage in the Senate to a razor-thin 51–49 margin until the 2018 midterms. Such a loss could further stall the party’s agenda, leaving Trump with a year under his belt and few accomplishments to his name. It also transforms the 2018 landscape, giving Democrats a stronger shot at winning a Senate majority. (The winner of the Alabama special election will serve until 2020.)
But the stakes of this story go beyond narrow Beltway drama. The ground is shifting in American culture as a growing number of women speak out against assault, abuse, and harassment at the hands of powerful men. With Donald Trump, we have one example of what happens when politics meets accusations of sexual assault: nothing. With Roy Moore, we have a chance to see if anything has changed, or if—when it comes to choosing leaders—voters are still willing to ignore credible accusations from multiple women when a victory for their party hangs in the balance.