When voters head to the polls next week in Alabama’s high-stakes Senate race, one question will be key: Will suburban Republican women stick with their party’s chosen candidate, Roy Moore, who has been accused of sexual misconduct with teenage girls when he was in his 30s?
Female voters in well-to-do suburbs like Mountain Brook, outside of Birmingham, could make the difference in the Dec. 12 special election that’s too close – and too unusual – to call, observers say. Normally, Alabama is reliably Republican. It put Donald Trump over the top by 28 points last year.
But this is not a normal election. It features a GOP candidate who would face an immediate Senate ethics investigation if elected, and a Democrat who is vastly outspending his competitor and polling remarkably well. And although the campaign has been front-page news here, voters will be heading to the polls at a time when many are busy preparing for the Christmas holidays.
“It’s the urban-suburban vote that’s going to make the race,” says Gerald Johnson, a longtime observer of Alabama politics and former director of the Capital Survey Research Center.
Mr. Moore’s campaign has been bolstered this week by an endorsement from President Trump, along with the Republican National Committee’s decision to deploy resources on Moore’s behalf (after previously pulling its support for him), and a rally in Fairhope Tuesday evening with former Trump strategist Steve Bannon.
To overcome these headwinds, Democrat Doug Jones will have to turn on the turnout. That means generating heavy participation by African-Americans and peeling off some Republicans – particularly suburban women.
The suburban women’s vote “may be the increment that makes the difference in this election,” says Mr. Johnson. He points specifically to Birmingham and surrounding Jefferson County, the most populous part of the state, which includes affluent Mountain Brook.
Here, BMWs and Porsches hug hillside roads where the trees still sport orange leaves on a warm December day. Dotting the lush lawns that sweep up to Tudor mansions and Plantation-style homes in this traditionally Republican suburb are numerous Doug Jones signs.
Mountain Brook is home to Mr. Jones, a former US attorney who successfully prosecuted Klansmen for killing four black girls in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. But that alone doesn’t account for the many Jones signs – and the noticeable absence of any Moore placards.
Interviews with more than a dozen Republican women in Jefferson County, most of them in Mountain Brook, found diverging views. But one thing jumps out: a distinct generational difference.
A ‘different time’
Older women, whether bothered by the allegations against Moore or not, said they were likely to vote for him or stay home. Younger women found the accounts of his inappropriate behavior more credible and disturbing, and said they would vote for Jones or a write-in candidate.
Pam Segars-Morris has long been active in Alabama Republican circles. The Realtor, from the Birmingham suburb of Hueytown, originally supported Sen. Luther Strange, the GOP incumbent who lost to Moore in a September primary run-off. But now she is squarely behind Moore, because, like Trump, she believes he’ll fight the “swamp” in Washington and speak his mind without regard to political correctness.
She isn’t pleased that Moore was twice removed from the bench as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court for refusing to obey court orders that differed with his religious views. But she calls the sexual allegations against Moore “a political hit job” full of what she sees as irregularities, holes, and falsehoods.
Besides, she says, those were different times.
“I was around 40 years ago, and I know what was acceptable and what was not,” says Ms. Segars-Morris. She says her grandmother married at age 13 and had seven children, and her aunt was 16 when she wed. “If you weren’t married by 18, you were an old maid.”
A Washington Post-Schar Center poll looked at this issue of comparative cultural norms. In results published earlier this month, the poll found that a solid majority of likely voters in Alabama – 56 percent – did not think that older men dating teenagers was more accepted by society in the 1970s than it is today. However, a third of overall respondents believed it was more accepted back then, including 37 percent of Republicans.
Such dating is seen as totally unacceptable in today’s world, the poll found. Nearly all respondents, 91 percent, said it is never appropriate for a man in his 30s to date a female 16-year-old, which is the legal age of consent in Alabama.
The passage of time makes no difference to Sarah, a 30-something who stopped to talk in the charming Mountain Brook village of Crestline, which features boutique shops and restaurants.
“Moore did not marry these girls. He messed with them,” she says. “I don’t think it’s OK.” Sarah, who did not want her last name used, says she plans to write in a candidate, probably a Republican newcomer to the race, retired Marine Col. Lee Busby.
She found agreement from Mary Leesa Booth, an attorney in her 40s, who has voted for both Republicans and Democrats in the past. Ms. Booth calls Moore “disgusting,” and says her conservative friends, especially moms, do not plan to vote for him.
“The whole issue hits home. I don’t have kids, but people are energized to vote [against Moore],” says Ms. Booth, who describes Jones as “a very good person.”
Abortion a key issue
Several older women, including Segars-Morris, said they could never vote for Jones because he supports abortion rights – a key issue, and often a deciding one, for many conservative evangelical voters. Some said they didn’t approve of Moore, but were going to back him anyway because a Republican absolutely must hold that Senate seat to ensure conservative judicial appointments, including possibly to the Supreme Court.
If Moore loses, that would narrow the GOP’s hold on the Senate to a one-seat majority. That point has been underscored by two female Republican leaders in Alabama, the governor and the party leader. And it's a point Trump brought home in his Monday endorsement tweet:
For younger Republican women, abortion is also an important issue.
“A pro-life Democrat would have won this particular race running away. The distaste for Roy Moore is so strong, if it wasn’t for this one issue he wouldn’t stand a chance,” says Elizabeth BeShears, a contributing conservative columnist for the Alabama Media Group, AL.com, who recently opined that “Kids these days aren’t supporting Roy Moore.”
Moore is campaigning on God, Trump, draining the D.C. swamp, and his anti-abortion and traditional-marriage views. Yet social issues are not the only concern for younger conservatives, both men and women, says Ms. BeShears in an interview. Many have a problem with Moore generally – and not only the reports of his sexual misconduct.
“We’re tired of being embarrassed by our elected officials,” she says, referring to a governor who resigned last spring on the verge of impeachment and a state speaker of the House who was convicted of felony charges and also pushed out. “We’re tired of being embarrassed by the poor education in Alabama.”
While older Alabamians might relish their fierce independent streak and bristle at outsiders telling them what to do, younger people “are a lot more concerned with how the world sees us than previous generations have been,” BeShears says.
They’re so concerned that last month, the Young Republican Federation of Alabama suspended its support for Moore and said he should step aside if he cannot “clearly and convincingly” refute the sexual misconduct allegations. Moore has denied the claims, but the issue for the federation – the state’s main group of young Republicans – is the “convincingly” part.
Traditionally, turnout among young voters is not as high as with older voters. But these activists represent Alabama’s rising Republicans and raise the question of whether a broader political change lies ahead.