WASHINGTON — Democratic candidate Doug Jones prevailed in Alabama’s special Senate election race Tuesday night, delivering an enormous and unexpected win for the Democratic Party that slices the GOP’s majority in the upper chamber to 51-49.
Jones narrowly defeated renegade Republican Roy Moore, a man who was accused of sexually assaulting teenaged women when he was in his 30s — including a 14-year-old girl.
“Thank you, ALABAMA,’’ Jones tweeted shortly after the race was called by the Associated Press and other news organizations.
Jones referenced the state’s racist past in his brief remarks to supporters at his headquarters in Birmingham.
“We have been at crossroads in the past,’’ he said. “Unfortunately we have usually taken the wrong fork. And tonight ladies and gentlemen, you took the right road.”
Moore did not concede the race and said the vote was so close it required closer scrutiny, although he did not call for a recount.
“I realize when the vote is this close, it is not over,’’ Moore said in brief remarks. “God is always in control.’’
The razor-thin victory is evidence that Alabama voters put principle over their conservative politics in choosing a candidate with a sterling reputation, but one who is out of step with most of the state's voters on issues like abortion.
It’s also a massive rebuke for President Trump, who won the state by 28 points in last year’s election. The president tried to use his popularity to pull Moore across the finish line, endorsing Moore and even holding a rally 14 miles from the Alabama border in Pensacola, Fla., where he urged voters five days before the election to support Moore.
Senate Democrats were jubilant.
“Doug Jones will be an outstanding senator who will represent Alabama well,’’ said Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer. “Roy Moore was an awful candidate and never should have gotten to the Senate.’’
Trump congratulated Jones in an unusually conciliatory tweet from the White House: “The people of Alabama are great, and the Republicans will have another shot at this seat in a very short period of time. It never ends!’’
A surge of votes from African-American communities in Birmingham, Montgomery, and other urban areas made the difference for Jones, who came out on top 49.9 to 48.4 percent with 100 percent of the vote counted. The win provides fresh momentum for Democrats heading into the 2018 midterm elections, suggesting that they could be on the verge of benefiting from a wave election. The party was already buoyed by victories last month in governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey, along with a host of local races.
It’s the first real evidence that Democrats can be competitive in the South, where they’ve been largely shut out in recent years. They’re looking forward to another competitive race in Tennessee where Republican Bob Corker unexpectedly announced this year that he will retire, leaving his seat open. Democrats recruited former Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen.
The battle in Alabama to replace Jeff Sessions was one expected to be a sleepy race, but when Republicans nominated Moore, it became a referendum on whether the state would hold onto its rebel reputation as the “Heart of Dixie” or move beyond its racist past.
“Decency wins,’’ tweeted Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican and staunch Trump opponent who warned the party against backing Moore.
With Jones, Democrats fielded their strongest candidate in years. A Birmingham lawyer, he emphasized his experience over 3½ years as a federal prosecutor for the northern half of the state, where he made strong ties with law enforcement and the African-American communities.
It was during that time that Jones pursued justice for four young black girls killed in the 1963 bombing of a church in Birmingham. The case was three decades old when Jones and his team began working it, and through dogged investigation they were able to convict two Ku Klux Klansmen.
After an abortion clinic in Birmingham was bombed, he launched an investigation that eventually led to the conviction of Eric Rudolph, who also was found guilty of a bombing at the Atlanta Olympics.
But the bottom line in this race was that his biggest strength was just being plain vanilla.
The Democrat largely avoided making any news of his own and pitched himself as a reasonable alternative to Moore’s antics. He played on potential embarrassment Moore would inflict on the state if voters sent him to Washington.
“In Alabama we have come so far with too many things, and there is a saying, fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me,” said Jones on Tuesday after casting his vote. “Alabama is not going to let that shame happen again.”
In the final days of the campaign Jones brought prominent black leaders to campaign with him including former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. Both are potential 2020 presidential candidates.
But on the issues, Jones is out of step with most voters in the Bible Belt state, which is heavily influenced by evangelicals. He supports transgender rights. He’s prochoice on abortion. And he’s even a Yankees fan. He will have to tread a careful path to set himself up for reelection in 2020, when the remainder of Sessions' term expires.
He beat a candidate known for his antigay and racist comments and who has been removed twice from his perch as the chief justice of Alabama’s Supreme Court — first for refusing to remove a display of the Ten Commandments from a state building and then for telling lower court judges to deny same-sex marriage licenses even after the Supreme Court found a ban on same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional.
Moore and his wife arrived to their polling place Tuesday in Gallant on horseback, and throughout the day he continued to say the choice on the ballot was between locals and outsiders.
“We’re Alabamians. We’re conservative. And we’re not going to stand by and let other people from out of state and money from California control this election!” Moore posted on Twitter Tuesday.
But the “outsider” case was impossible for Moore to make as Republican leaders in Alabama bolted from him. Sessions said that he believed the women who accused Moore of sexual assault.
Richard Shelby, the state’s senior senator, said he couldn’t cast a vote for Moore and instead wrote in a different Republican name.
The race highlighted a massive split in the Republican Party between the establishment wing, represented by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, and nationalistic wings of the party led by former White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who is hoping to topple a number of incumbent Republicans.
Bannon, who went to Alabama four times to campaign for Moore, is set to shoulder significant blame for turning one of the reddest states in the country into a Democratic win.
“Not only did Steve Bannon cost us a critical Senate seat in one of the most Republican states in the country, but he also dragged the president of the United States into his fiasco,” said Senate Leadership Fund president and CEO Steven Law, a McConnell ally.
The race was the first test of his new effort to bring down establishment Republicans in the Senate — he has promised to support challengers to nearly every incumbent GOP senator this year in an effort to remake the party in Trump’s populist image.
“It gives establishment Republican something to point to to prove that the Bannon wing of the party is putting up terrible candidates who are capable of losing what should be easy elections,” said Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist and former spokesman for 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. “It undermines efforts to recruit primary challengers to incumbent members of the Senate.”Annie Linskey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.