Every competitive special election draws outsized attention, but few deserve it more than Wednesday's US Senate contest in Alabama. No matter the outcome, the results will reverberate loudly across America — and nowhere more than inside the Republican Party.
The contest between Republican Roy Moore and Democrat Doug Jones is a morality play with significant political consequences. It sweeps in everything that is current — President Donald Trump's standing, the fractured Republican Party, the Democrats' hopes for 2018, and above all, the issue of whether, at a time of changing attitudes, political allegiance outweighs credible claims of sexual misconduct.
Unlike in many such elections, the voting will not end the controversy. For Republicans, that's perhaps the most worrying aspect. The results will be picked at for meaning beyond what any single election can produce, but there will be plenty in what happens worth picking at.
For Republicans, there likely can be no truly good outcome. If Moore wins, the party will have preserved the seat but will be saddled with a new senator under a cloud of allegations, including assaulting a teenager many years ago as well as a pattern of pursuing teenagers half his age when he was in his 30s. If he wins and is sworn in, he probably will face an ethics investigation that will keep the controversy alive until his fate is resolved. For the Republicans, it's a hot mess.
If Moore loses, the GOP would be spared his presence in the Senate. But the result will have inflamed the anti-establishment forces led by former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, deepening antagonisms that continue to shake the party. A Jones victory also would tarnish the President, who has enthusiastically endorsed Moore and campaigned near the Alabama border on Saturday in a display of that support. Additionally, a Jones victory would put the Republican majority at greater risk in 2018.
As a public figure, Moore has long been a renegade. He is a throwback to a different era and an embarrassment to many in his state. Even before the women came forward to accuse him of sexual impropriety, he was highly controversial, having twice been removed from the state Supreme Court. The first involved his resistance to an order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state Supreme Court building; the second was over his order to state judges not to abide by the US Supreme Court's ruling that legalised same-sex marriages.
Still, Moore would be a shoo-in were it not for the allegations of sexual misconduct. Alabama is one of the most Republican states in the US and is deeply polarised, red versus blue and white versus black. Trump won Alabama by 28 points in 2016. Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, then an Alabama senator, was the first US senator to endorse Trump.
Moore has a following that is unshakable, especially among evangelical Christians. In a recent Washington Post-Schar School poll that showed the overall race neck and neck, 78 per cent of evangelical Christian voters in Alabama said they backed Moore's candidacy. Among other white Christians in the state, his support was at 41 per cent.
Moore's support among Christian conservatives highlights the degree to which tribal loyalty offsets other factors in voters' political choices. The president cast the choice in starkly partisan and ideological terms when he recently gave Moore a full-throated endorsement. In a tweet last week, he said of Moore: "We need his vote on stopping crime, illegal immigration, Border Wall, Military, Pro Life, V.A., Judges 2nd Amendment and more."
The split within the Republican coalition is highlighted by the divergent paths taken by Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, since Moore was accused of sexual assault and impropriety.
Trump is all in with Moore. Having been accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women during his presidential campaign, Trump has chosen to embrace another Republican facing similar charges.
Shortly after Trump's endorsement, the Republican National Committee reversed course and re-entered the race on behalf of Moore after pulling out in the wake of the allegations against him.
Once the women came forward, McConnell tried without success to force Moore to step aside. His failure once again underscored the limited power the GOP establishment has in these matters. Unlike Trump, he has not moved back toward Moore in these final days. He has made it clear that an ethics investigation probably awaits Moore if he wins. Should Moore become a senator, he and McConnell will find it difficult to coexist in the same chamber.
A Jones victory would give Democrats a boost in the battle for control of the Senate next year, though the path is narrow and starts with the necessity of holding every Democratic seat at stake next year, including the red and purple states Trump won in 2016.
If Democrats were to do that, they would still need to pick up a net of three more seats to gain the majority. They have two decent possibilities: in Arizona, where Senator Jeff Flake is stepping down; and in Nevada, where Senator Dean Heller is in trouble.
Democrats got good news when Phil Bredesen, the former Democratic Governor of Tennessee, announced that he would run for the seat of retiring Senator Bob Corker, a Republican. He is one of the few Democrats who might be able to win statewide in a state that has turned increasingly red and conservative.
The race in Alabama symbolises a Republican Party in turmoil, with Trump and Bannon pitted against McConnell and others in the GOP establishment. Trump has continued to bend the party in his direction. A Moore victory would add to that record of success by the President, but at a potentially sizable cost to the Republican Party.
Alabama — what's at stake?
Roy Moore faces Democrat Doug Jones to become senator of the Republican red state.
Why: The special election was triggered by Senator Jeff Sessions' appointment as Attorney-General.
When: Wednesday NZT.
Race impact: The race has gripped and horrified America in equal measure, becoming a microcosm for debates raging nationally - from "fake news" to the standards expected of public officials.
Result impact: Losing would lower the Republican majority in the Senate to 51-49, meaning just two rebels would be enough to kill any Donald Trump legislation.
Trump's impact: The race will be a measure of the success of Trump who is firmly behind Moore.
What the polls say: Moore had a steady lead in October. Jones pushed ahead from mid to late November. The RealClearPolitics.com average is Moore now ahead by 3.8 points.
Roy Moore, 70
A former judge. Moore is accused of making sexual advances on teenage girls when he was in his 30s. The claims range from driving a 14-year-old to his house in the woods and assaulting her to getting banned from a shopping centre for approaching teenagers. Officials from the mall have said they are not in possession of records that would identify who was banned in the late 1970s and 1980s. Moore has denied the claims and ignored calls to quit, declaring himself the victim of a "witch hunt". Moore once backed outlawing gay sex and praised slavery-era America for its family cohesion. Moore leans hard on his fundamentalist faith and the need to restore Christian values.
Doug Jones, 63
Jones was a US Attorney and is famous for prosecuting the remaining two Ku Klux Klan perpetrators of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing which killed four African-American girls, and also gaining an indictment against the Olympic Park Bomber. In Trump country, Jones has played up core Republican issues. Keeping the military strong and tackling crime feature in campaign literature. African-Americans make up about 25 per cent of eligible voters, though Democratic pollster Zac McCrary said Jones needs black voters to comprise 27 per cent or more of those who show up. Jones then needs to win one in three white voters, which would require capturing about 15 per cent of Republicans.
- Additional reporting: Telegraph Group Ltd, AP