In one of the strangest political developments of a strange political year, Democrats may have a shot at winning a Senate seat in Alabama, one of the most conservative states in the country.
Although Democrats had footholds in state and local government until recently, at the national level the Yellowhammer state has long been a Republican stronghold. It has supported one Democrat for president in 60 years and Richard Shelby, the last Alabama Democrat elected to the US Senate, switched to become a Republican more than 20 years ago.
Now, Roy Moore’s win in the primary for the Senate seat vacated by the US attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has given Democrats a sliver of hope that their nominee, Doug Jones, can pull off an upset in December.
In a turbulent career that has seen him twice removed as chief justice of the Alabama supreme court, Moore has made inflammatory and controversial statements. In the past year, he has praised Vladimir Putin in a Guardian interview and suggested that the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 were punishment for a country turning away from God.
He has said “homosexual conduct should be illegal” and his most recent removal as Alabama chief justice came after he ordered state courts to defy the US supreme court’s legalization of gay marriage. In prepared remarks during a primary debate, he condemned “sodomy”.
As Zac McCrary, a Democratic pollster based in Montgomery, put it to the Guardian, Jones is, despite all this, “an underdog”. But McCrary struck a number of optimistic notes. First, he noted that “Roy Moore is just a bad candidate” who finished below 20% in two primaries for governor and “limped across the finish line” in his 2012 race for state chief justice, lagging far behind the rest of the Republican ticket.
McCrary also emphasised Jones’s biography. From a blue-collar background, he rose to become a federal prosecutor, successfully prosecuting two Ku Klux Klan members for the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham in 1963, in which four African American girls were killed.
Jones is drawing national attention: Joe Biden, the former vice-president, spoke at a rally this week in Birmingham. Moore’s campaign welcomed the visit and the prospect of others to follow. In its view, Biden actually boosted Moore, by nationalizing a race in such a deep red state.
“Chuck Schumer can come down here, Nancy Pelosi can come down here, even Obama,” said an adviser to Moore, Dean Young. “Evidently they are gearing up for a war in Alabama and if they gear up for a war, they’ll gear up to lose.”
Jones has also staked out a stance on abortion that may not play well in Alabama. In a recent interview with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd, he said he was “not in favor of anything that is going to infringe on a woman’s right and her freedom to choose. That’s just the position that I’ve had for many years. It’s a position I continue to have.”
One Republican strategist was pleasantly flabbergasted by this, saying: “Alabama is one of the most pro-life states in the union and he didn’t take a middle-of-the-road pro-choice position.”
Republicans remain wary of Moore, who is not only likely to become a fundraising magnet for Democrats: in a divided party, he could become millstone around the necks of GOP candidates in more socially liberal areas.
In the primary, national Republicans duly spent heavily against Moore. A Super Pac affiliated with the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, spent more than $9m to support Luther Strange, who was appointed to the Senate after Sessions joined the Trump administration. Donald Trump was even coaxed into endorsing the incumbent.
In contrast, Moore was backed by the populist Trump wing of the party, including the former White House aide Steve Bannon, who stumped on Moore’s behalf.
One Washington Republican strategist said that if the race was competitive, “the ball [will be] in Bannon’s court”. As the strategist noted, Bannon “got his guy through the runoff and [it is] now incumbent on him to get his candidate through the general election.
“In past cycles, Bannonites and [the] Senate Conservative Funds of the world have gotten these bozo candidates through the primary and left them on the vine to die.”
Moore’s campaign returned the disdain toward the national Republican party. Young told the Guardian: “I don’t know much about Mitch McConnell except that he spent $30m lying about my friend Judge Moore. Don’t know how much he’ll help Judge Moore or be allowed to help Judge Moore.”
The problem is that Moore will need the help. He ran a barebones campaign in the primary and was boosted by deep distrust among Republican voters around the controversial circumstances under which Strange was appointed to the Senate. As McCrary argued: “Roy Moore’s policies and views aren’t just [in] sync with 1958 attitudes. Roy Moore is more inclined to run a campaign akin to 1958.”
On election eve, outside a rally held in a barn in southern Alabama, Moore provided an opportunity for supporters to make phone calls on his behalf. There were only a handful of volunteers. They were simply given printed lists of numbers.
Yet for all of the Moore campaign’s challenges, he is still facing a reliably Republican electorate in a state Trump won by nearly 30 points. He will also have the support of most who until now have adamantly opposed him.
Asked who he would support in the general election, Senator Shelby said: “I’m a Republican. I’m going to support the nominee, who in this case happens to be Roy Moore.”
Asked if he thought the race would be competitive, the veteran politician said: “I don’t think so.
“But you never know. Anything could happen.”
Lauren Gambino contributed reporting