In Alabama election, a state wrestles with its identity

To many, the race is not just about a seat in the US Senate, but the image Alabamians hold of their state – and want to project to the rest of the nation.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters
Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore departed on horseback after he cast his ballot in Gallant, Ala., Dec. 12.

When the results are tallied in Tuesday’s high-stakes special election, Alabamians will have chosen not only their next United States senator – but, many say, which image of their state they want to project to the world.

Loyal supporters of controversial Republican candidate Roy Moore have expressed pride in his unbending, court-defying stand for faith in God, traditional marriage, and the unborn, and his railing against the GOP establishment and “fake news.” It’s the kind of rabble-rousing, nose-thumbing rebelliousness for which Alabama has long been famous.

“Alabama’s always had a fiercely independent streak,” explains GOP pollster and consultant Whit Ayres. “George Wallace came from Alabama, and stood in the schoolhouse door to tell the federal government to get lost,” says Mr. Ayres, referring to the Democratic governor of Alabama who opposed integration in the turbulent 1960s, when the state was ground zero for the civil rights movement.

Supporters of Democrat Doug Jones, meanwhile, have said it’s time to turn the corner on that renegade reputation, which they see as rooted in regrettable chapters in Alabama’s history. To them, electing Mr. Moore, who has faced allegations of sexual misconduct with teenage girls when he was in his 30s, would cement the state’s “backward” image – something many Alabamians, and not just Democrats, want to move beyond.

“We’re tired of being embarrassed by our elected officials, tired of being embarrassed by the poor educational and election outcomes of our state,” says Elizabeth BeShears, a young conservative columnist for, speaking about her generation. She says many young Republicans view Moore as perpetuating negative stereotypes about the state.

John Bazemore/AP
Democratic Senate candidate Doug Jones greets supporters outside Bethal Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., Dec. 12.

In a highly unusual move, Alabama’s own senior Republican senator, Richard Shelby, publicly said that instead of voting for Moore, he opted to write in another Republican on his absentee ballot. "The state of Alabama deserves better," he told CNN on Sunday.

Senator Shelby said he finds the charges of sexual misconduct against Moore credible. And he is concerned the election could tarnish the state’s image among corporate investors, whom the longtime senator has worked hard to bring to the state. Neither the Alabama Business Council nor the US Chamber of Commerce supported Moore.

“The business community has concerns about the image of Alabama because we have attracted a lot of domestic and foreign investment,” Shelby told The Wall Street Journal this month. “In the last 25 years, a lot of us have tried to tell the world that Alabama is open for business, a good place to do business.’’

A transitioning economy

The Huntsville area in Appalachian northern Alabama stands as one of those welcome signs that the state is transitioning from a largely agricultural economy to one that’s more technology-oriented.

A replica of a giant Saturn V rocket stands as a landmark at the US Space and Rocket Center there – anchoring a thriving aerospace and biotech community that Shelby has carefully tended from his influential perch on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The Jones campaign made a point of describing Alabama as at a “crossroads” with its own history. It’s time to turn the page on poor health care and education, Mr. Jones has said. The state ranks near the bottom on both of those issues, and has one of the highest rates of poverty in the country.

In addition, Jones has stressed the need to end a crisis of confidence in Alabama’s elected officials.

Moore was twice removed from the state supreme court for refusing a federal court order to remove the Ten Commandments from the Alabama Judicial Building, and later for refusing to implement the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage.

But he’s not the only elected official to have been forced from office. In April, the governor resigned when he faced impeachment over a finance and sex scandal. The state house speaker resigned after being convicted of felony ethics violations in 2016.

Jones, a lawyer and son of a steelworker, has also very deliberately promoted himself as a champion of racial justice in a state that’s politically divided along racial lines.

When he was US Attorney, he successfully prosecuted Klansmen responsible for the 1963 bombing at the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed four African-American girls. The Jones campaign is relying on an intense get-out-the-vote effort among blacks: one recent Sunday morning, Jones visited nine black churches in Tuscaloosa.

Yet African-Americans have been discouraged since Barack Obama left the White House, and Anthony Cook, who sings in the choir at 16th St. Baptist, was not confident they would turn out for Jones. He says he’s noticed a distinct rise in racism since Trump took office, citing an example at his own workplace.

At the very least, Mr. Cook says, blacks “should be voting because of what we went through” to secure that right. Civil rights activists, however, say that Alabama’s 2011 voter ID law – which requires voters to show a driver’s license or other valid form of photo identification at the polls – has been suppressing minority turnout.

Jones has also tried to appeal to educated, suburban Republicans by promising to work across the aisle, including with President Trump, saying it’s time to heal division.

That sounded appealing to Susan, a lifelong Republican who stopped to talk outside a pharmacy in the wealthy Birmingham suburb of Mountain Brook, where Jones lives. Appealing except for one thing: social issues that this retired interior designer holds sacred.

“[Jones] does present himself as a middle-of-the-roader,” she said. But he is “extremely liberal on abortion and same-sex marriage, and I’m not for those things.”

'They see that baby as a soul'

Abortion is a big issue for many Alabamians.

“People down here are very religious and they see that baby as a soul,” says Richard Mauk, chairman of the Jefferson County Democratic Party, where Birmingham is located. “It’s very important to them. It even transcends jobs.”

Several voters who enthusiastically told the Monitor they backed Moore at a Montgomery rally in September said they still stood strongly behind the state’s former chief justice, who is a Vietnam veteran and graduate of West Point. They don’t think he would reflect badly on Alabama.

Claire Hubbard says the left has tried to “ruin a man who was falsely accused” and never been proven guilty. Indeed, Moore denies the allegations.

“Roy Moore will do what is right in Washington and will get things done. I don't believe Alabama's image is nearly so tainted as the Washington swamp that is trying to keep a good, conservative man out,” this grandmother wrote in an email.

“The people of Alabama will not be dictated to,” agreed B. B. Sellers, reflecting that fierce independence for which Alabama is so well known.

Yet Alabama historian Wayne Flynt, professor emeritus at Auburn University, cautions against overplaying the state’s singularity.

Alabamians gave Trump a 28-point margin over Hillary Clinton last year – but they’re not all that different from Trump supporters anywhere else in the country, Professor Flynt says.

“A lot of Alabamians feel an elite world out there puts them down and makes fun of them,” he says, pointing to Moore’s campaign message against “establishment” Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky.

It is the same message preached by former Trump strategist Steve Bannon, who has campaigned for Moore in Alabama, and is looking for GOP candidates to challenge Senate Republican incumbents in other states.

Similarly, while young conservatives may object to Moore (Flynt detects no enthusiasm for him on the conservative Auburn campus), they are not unlike other young voters around the country – less loyal to party and more accepting of same-sex marriage.

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