ALABASTER, Ala. – It’s no secret that if Roy Moore is going to lose his race for U.S. Senate, it’s going to happen in Alabama’s suburbs. And on Friday, a day after allegations emerged that the outspoken Christian conservative had sexual contact with a 14-year-old girl decades ago, at least a few Republicans in one Birmingham suburb were having second thoughts about their party’s nominee.
“Really and truly, I cannot tell you what I’m going to do right now,” said Carolyn Griffin, of Calera, as she watched her dog Loxy exercise at Alabaster’s Veterans Park.
Griffin is the kind of voter who might be moved by the allegations, and suburban Shelby County is where other likeminded voters are located. While Alabama might be called the Heart of Dixie, much of Shelby County is Anysuburb USA, with subdivisions and strip malls sprawling ever farther south along traffic-choked highways leading out of Birmingham.
The accusations against Moore come as Democrats are feeling increasingly optimistic about their strength in suburbs after Tuesday’s elections in Virginia, New Jersey and other races. Still, it’s a steep, steep climb in Alabama. No Democrat has held a U.S. Senate seat there since 1997, when Howell Heflin retired.
Moore has been considered the strong favourite as a Republican running in a deeply red state, and polls taken before the Washington Post story showed him with a lead over Democratic challenger Doug Jones in the Dec. 12 race.
But Moore, a polarizing figure within his own state, has typically underperformed other Republicans in general-election races, giving rise to Democrats’ hope of a victory against him in the off-year election.
“There was a universe in Alabama that was uncomfortable with him, all while Republicans were gaining in Alabama,” Birmingham-based Democratic pollster John Anzalone said. “These allegations now give these voters a reason to vote against him or stay home.”
The 70-year-old Moore, a former state Supreme Court judge, was twice removed from the Alabama Supreme Court, once for disobeying a federal court order to remove a 5,200-pound (2,359-kilogram) granite Ten Commandments monument from the lobby of the state judicial building and later for urging state probate judges to defy the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage.
He has vehemently denied accusations that he had sexual contact with a 14-year-old girl and pursued three other teenagers when he was an assistant district attorney in his early 30s.
He repeated his denial Saturday while speaking to the Mid Alabama Republican Club in Vestavia Hills outside Birmingham.
“There are investigations going on. In the next few days, there will be revelations about the motivations and the content of this article that will be brought to the public,” Moore said without elaborating. “We fully expect the people of Alabama to see through this charade.”
David Mowery, an Alabama-based political campaign consultant who helped run a Democrat’s unsuccessful campaign against Moore in 2012, said the allegations against Moore are damaging but aren’t necessarily a death blow.
“I think it hurts. It hurts because they are having to divert time and effort and probably money into killing it,” Mowery said. “Can they turn the page, so to speak, and turn it back to a D versus R thing?”
“There’s an old saying that the only way some candidates could lose is to be caught with a dead girl or a live boy. Alabama is going to test the specs on that like ‘Hold my beer,'” Mowery said.
The state’s eight most populous counties have almost as many people as the other 59 combined, and those are among the areas where Moore was weakest in the primary against Sen. Luther Strange, appointed to the Senate on an interim basis after Jeff Sessions was elevated to U.S. attorney general.
Former state Republican Party chairman Marty Connors said he expected the impact of the allegations to be concentrated in the suburbs.
“It will affect what I call your really, really moderate Republican voters,” Connors said.
But not everyone in the suburbs is ready to abandon Moore. Frank Pimintel of Alabaster said he viewed the allegations as part of a typical political smear campaign and wouldn’t judge Moore for something that happened more than 30 years ago.
“I’m about states’ rights, low taxes, local control. He stands for a lot of things that I believe in,” Pimintel said.
That’s more along the lines of the reaction that Connors and retired University of Alabama political science professor Bill Stewart expect rural voters to have.
“In rural Alabama, they don’t seem to be putting a lot of stock in this story,” Stewart said. “They don’t believe it.”
Connors said the accusations could even energize supporters, similar to how President Donald Trump survived audio of him bragging about groping women.
Mark Victory of Alabaster counted himself as still “tentatively in the Moore camp” after the claims.
Victory said he wants to support Trump’s agenda but might be swayed by more proof. If there is more proof, he said, his reaction would be to not vote at all.
“I’m not going to vote for his opponent,” Victory said, saying he believes Jones is too submissive to the agenda of national Democratic leaders.
But moderate Republicans not voting might not be enough for Jones, Stewart said, “given the intensity of Republican identification in Alabama.” Stewart still thinks Moore’s going to win, despite the allegations.
“I don’t think it matters enough to make Jones the favourite to win,” he said.
Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa. Associated Press writer Kim Chandler in Montgomery, Alabama, contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show that Howell Heflin was the last Democrat to hold a Senate seat from Alabama, but was not elected in 1992.