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Alabama’s Disdain for Democrats Looms Over Its Senate Race

Balloons and signs decorated the site of a Nov. 18 campaign event in Birmingham, Ala., for Doug Jones, the Democratic Senate candidate.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Anne Stickney does not have many good things to say about Roy S. Moore. She saw as mere “posturing” his name-making crusade over the display of the Ten Commandments in various Alabama courthouses. She has no reason to doubt the recent allegations that, as man in his 30s, Mr. Moore harassed and sexually assaulted teenagers. In sum, Ms. Stickney has concluded that Mr. Moore, the Republican nominee for United States Senate here, will not get her vote.

But she will not be voting for his Democratic opponent in the Senate election on Dec. 12, either.

“Doug Jones has a good reputation for being a good man,” Ms. Stickney, 63, said. “But he’s still a Democrat.”

Instead, she plans to write in Lee Busby, a Republican and retired Marine colonel, who is running a last-minute write-in campaign.

The outcome of the Senate race here is still anyone’s guess, and a victory for Mr. Jones would not be the first unexpected turn. But old habits die hard in Alabama, and veterans of Southern politics find it difficult to imagine that even this election, one of the most unpredictable in the state’s recent memory, would in the end stray far from the old fundamentals.

“I don’t think the Lord Jesus could win as a Democrat in Alabama,” said Brad Chism, who runs a Democratic communications firm in Mississippi that has conducted surveys of female voters in Alabama in recent weeks. “They’re just waiting for the Republican Party to tell them how they’re going to fix this.”

Mr. Moore was never widely popular in Alabama, even among Republicans; his zealous fan base has been just enough in some past elections, and in others — his two poor showings in Republican primaries for governor — it has been far short of enough. The aversion to Mr. Moore has only grown more pronounced with the outbreak of sexual misconduct allegations, including one that he molested a 14-year-old girl — allegations that Mr. Moore denies.

But distaste for Mr. Moore, while it may lead people to write in other names or just stay home, is for many still not a good enough reason to vote for a Democrat. And here in Alabama, one of the most inflexibly partisan states in the country, where genuine swing voters are few and politics is approached with the same kind of unshakable team loyalty as college football, this is the central problem with Mr. Jones. He has been trailing in recent polls after a spasm of optimism that he could pull off a stunning upset in a state where Democrats have not won a major statewide race since 2006.

Alabama Republicans who are looking for an alternative to Mr. Moore are turned off by the Democrats over a constellation of issues — Supreme Court nominations, the scope of federal regulation, the fact that a Democrat would probably stymie President Trump’s agenda and the general sense that the national Democratic brand is in conflict with white Southern culture. But the obstacle that voters most commonly bring up, from the college town of Tuscaloosa to suburban Birmingham to Mr. Moore’s home county in northeast Alabama, is Mr. Jones’s stance on abortion.

“The biggest thing for me is that he’s pro-choice,” said Susan Moore, a retired respiratory therapist who said she had been unhappy with Mr. Moore (who is no relation) for years, frustrated by his flouting of the law while he was a judge. She said she admired Mr. Jones’s prosecution of the Ku Klux Klan members who helped plan the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. But as for Mr. Jones in the Senate, she said, “I think he’s much too liberal for our state.”

In a September appearance on MSNBC, Mr. Jones explained that he was “not in favor of anything that is going to infringe on a woman’s right and her freedom to choose.” Many Alabama Democrats grimaced.

Nearly 60 percent of adults in Alabama believe that abortion should be illegal in most or all cases — tied for third-highest of any state, according to the Pew Research Center. Next year, Alabama voters will consider a proposed constitutional amendment, already approved by lawmakers, that would make it “the public policy of this state to recognize and support the sanctity of unborn life and the rights of unborn children, including the right to life.”

It is easy to see why Mr. Jones later clarified that he sought no changes in current law, and why Mr. Moore and Alabama conservatives have tried to stoke the Twitter hashtag #AbortionJones.

John D. Saxon, an Alabama lawyer and a decades-long stalwart of Democratic politics, said he had recently been out Christmas shopping when a man he did not know approached him in a parking lot. The man had a message for Mr. Jones.

“You tell him if he’ll change his position on abortion, I can get him all the Republican votes he’s going to need,” the man said, according to Mr. Saxon.

A supporter of Roy Moore, the Republican Senate candidate, waited on Nov. 27 for a campaign rally to begin in Henagar, Ala.

A name that comes up frequently is John Bel Edwards, who in 2015 defeated David Vitter, a Republican, in the Louisiana governor’s race to become one of only two Democrats holding statewide office in the Deep South.

Had Mr. Edwards supported abortion rights, “Vitter would have won that race, there’s no doubt in my mind,” said Jared Arsement, who was a campaign media consultant for Mr. Edwards.

During that campaign Mr. Arsement helped create an ad in which Mr. Edwards and his wife talked of how they went against a doctor’s recommendation to get an abortion and instead had a daughter with spina bifida. Mr. Arsement said the ad took one of the biggest Republican attack points off the table in that race.

“If Roy Moore wins,” he said, “it will only be because of Doug Jones’s stance on abortion.”

But many in Alabama are not so sure. Given the state’s partisan mold and the narrow Republican margin in the Senate, they say, even a staunchly anti-abortion Democrat might face long odds.

“I think abortion plays into it,” said Jack Campbell, a Republican campaign consultant who has no liking for Mr. Moore. “But to me, most people that are anti-Doug Jones are just saying, ‘Well, he’s a Democrat and part of being Democrat, as a rule, is that you’re pro-choice.’” (Like Ms. Stickney and Ms. Moore, Mr. Campbell is supporting Mr. Busby).

Mr. Saxon, the veteran Democrat, had similar thoughts.

“It may be that abortion is shorthand for a whole bunch of liberal Democratic issues that someone would identify with Chuck Schumer,” he said, referring to the Senate minority leader.

Abortion is one of the few issues that caused people to switch parties in past years, said Clyde Wilcox, a professor of government at Georgetown University who has studied the politics of abortion. But, he said the party sorting process has essentially played out, and stances toward abortion are now nearly synonymous with party identification.

“We’ve become so tribal to our politics, we want our tribe to dominate Congress for all kinds of reasons,” Professor Wilcox said. “Of all those issues, the one that is the easiest to say, but also maybe the most intense, would be abortion.” If an anti-abortion Democrat were running in the Alabama race, Professor Wilcox said, “my guess is most of the people saying ‘abortion’ would just be saying something else.”

Unhappiness over the choice in this race is real, and reluctance among Republicans to vote for Mr. Moore is widespread. Write-in votes for Mr. Busby and other figures could influence the race, but Democratic and Republican pollsters said it was difficult to forecast their overall impact.

The question among backers of Mr. Jones, given the significant Republican advantage in the state, is whether enough of those disheartened Republican voters are willing to break their partisan habit, even if just this once.

The Senate contest is essentially a “math problem” that could be solved through a series of strategies, including working to ensure black turnout, said Mayor Walt Maddox of Tuscaloosa, a Democrat who is running for governor. But, he said, “No. 1 is convincing independent voters shading Republican that Doug Jones is the best option for our state.”

Among such Republican-shaded independent voters is Matthew S. Metcalfe, a retired insurance executive in Mobile, who said of Mr. Moore, “I despise what he’s about.” Religion should be a personal matter, not a political one, said Mr. Metcalfe, who is not energized at the polls by debates on abortion. He thinks of Mr. Jones “as a man and what he’s done, as pristine.”

Despite all that, he said, a vote for Mr. Jones would be a vote in favor of Mr. Schumer and the Democrats’ approach to regulation, their aspirations for the courts and their attitudes about the proper size of government, all of which he opposes. So when Mr. Metcalfe filled in his absentee ballot, as a matter of principle, he did not mark a box next to the name of either Senate candidate.

But he did mark the one for a straight Republican ticket — so his vote will count for Mr. Moore just the same.

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