MONTGOMERY, ALABAMA – When Alabama voters cast ballots to select a U.S. senator they will face a choice that echoes the country’s partisan political divide: elect a Democrat or pick a man accused of preying on teenaged girls.
The Republican candidate — backed by U.S. President Donald Trump — is Roy Moore, a former state judge known for his battles to publicly display the Ten Commandments. He has more recently made headlines over accusations that he pursued girls as young as 14 when he was in his 30s.
Voters on Tuesday can choose Moore or his Democratic opponent Doug Jones, a former federal prosecutor. Or they could shun both by writing the name of another candidate not listed on the ballot — a move that could split the Republican vote and help Jones.
Alabama has not elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1992, and a Jones win will reduce the already-slim Republican majority in the upper house of Congress from 52 to 51 seats out of 100.
In Alabama, a Southern state where Trump won 62 percent of the vote, voting for a Democrat is unthinkable for many Republicans, even if they believe the allegations against Moore, which he has rejected as “fake news” orchestrated by his enemies.
For Ann Wright, a 69-year-old retiree living in a suburb of Birmingham, the answer is Moore. “I’m sorry, but just to keep the Democrats out,” she said is her reasoning.
People “probably think Alabama is terrible, and they go around saying, ‘Oh, you voted for a pedophile.’ Well, it really hasn’t been proven yet,” she added.
Multiple women have come forward to accuse Moore of pursuing them when they were teenagers, including one who said he groped her when she was 14 and another who said he assaulted her at age 16.
“During that period of time, there were teenage girls that were dating older men,” said Wright, noting that: “I had people in my high school that dated guys in their 20s.”
Other Republicans have expressed similar sentiments, and while Moore plunged in the polls after the initial revelations, he has come back slightly ahead.
For those voters who believe the accusations against Moore, there is a third option aside from him or Jones: write in another candidate.
That’s what 70-year-old retired teacher Laura Strubel, who opposes Jones’ stance in favor of a woman’s right to have an abortion, plans to do.
The election and the surrounding controversy is “crazy” and she is “ready to get it over with,” Strubel said.
Gadsden, the mall where Moore reportedly pursued teenaged girls, is still there, crowded ahead of the Christmas holiday.
It’s not hard to find people who know Moore, such as Linda Fain, a librarian who said she went out several times with him and his wife.
“He’s a good man,” she said, while “the ladies that have come forward are not so truthful.”
But some young people are not as indulgent.
At a hair salon, Emma Howell, the 21-year-old manager, rolls her eyes at the mention of Moore, saying he has broken the habitual Republican vote among her generation.
“People are realizing that they don’t have to vote Republican,” Howell said.
It is undeniable that Moore has boosted enthusiasm for Democrats, an endangered species in significant parts of the Southern U.S.
Steve Bannon, former chief White House strategist and ardent Moore supporter, presents the election as a choice between Trump and his 2016 presidential election rival, Hillary Clinton.
The political risk explains why Trump, after sitting on the fence, threw his support behind Moore, saying Republicans “cannot afford” to lose the Senate seat.
Democrats know that defeating Moore is a near impossible mission, but as Jones noted, it was just as unlikely that it would snow in early December in Birmingham, which was veiled in white Saturday.
“Now is the time for change,” Jones told a campaign rally, saying Moore “has been a disaster for the face of Alabama already.”