Alabama is deeply conservative, uniformly run by Republicans, and just gave Donald Trump a 28-point victory last year.
And now Democrats are openly wondering if it could be the site of an improbable upset this December.
Roy Moore’s victory Tuesday to become the GOP nominee in a special election for the U.S. Senate has given hope to some Democrats — especially members of the liberal left — that the party has an unexpected if long-shot chance of winning a Senate race in Alabama for the first time since 1990.
“The honest answer is you really don’t know how competitive it could be,” said John Anzalone, a veteran Democratic pollster based in Montgomery, Ala. “But you get a sense there’s enough opportunity, even in a red state like Alabama, where there could be some funky things that go on if money gets spent here.
“Everyone is realistic,” he added. “But what I think people don’t get is that it can actually be a competitive race.”
Anzalone emphasized that Democrats will have to closely examine the race to determine its competitiveness. And, indeed, key party groups and allied outside groups say they plan to monitor the race in the coming weeks, unsure if the Democratic nominee, Doug Jones, has a realistic path to victory.
But that Democrats are even considering competing in a deep-red state like Alabama is a testament to the vulnerability they see in Moore, who has twice been removed from his post on the state Supreme Court and has a well-documented history of offensive remarks about gay men and women. Republican groups from Washington spent heavily against Moore in his run-off contest against incumbent Sen. Luther Strange, concerned in part that his rhetoric could tarnish the entire party.
If a Republican candidate for federal office could ever lose in a place like Alabama, Democrats contend, he’d have a profile similar to Moore’s.
“Republicans now have their nominee for the special election and the choice facing Alabama this December could not be clearer,” said Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, in a statement. “Voters can’t look past Roy Moore’s fringe beliefs, habit of putting himself first and his dishonesty. Even Republicans have said Moore is unfit to serve and spent millions to keep him out of office. “
One progressive group watching the race called it “an uphill climb” but added that “Moore’s extremism offers a potential opening.” The Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group for LGBQT men and women, said through a spokesman it would “remain focused on ensuring that [Moore] does not hold public office again.”
Democrats caution that there are a lot of unanswered questions about the race, including whether Republican groups that backed Strange will go all in for Moore or how much money Jones can raise on his own. Turnout in special elections is also often difficult to gauge, adding an extra layer of uncertainty.
But some liberal activists — buoyed by the GOP’s failure this week in the Senate to pass a health care bill — are convinced the party should already be preparing to make a major investment in the race.
“It'd be political malpractice for the party not to compete for a Senate seat in Alabama, especially if Jones is running against a candidate who even fringe Republicans know is a far-right whack job,” said Neil Sroka, spokesman for Democracy for America.
Democrats have faced similar special elections already in 2017. In four House special races, the party competed in but ultimately lost races in deep red districts — most notably when Jon Ossoff narrowly lost his contest in an Atlanta suburban district race that attracted tens of millions of dollars in spending and national attention.
Democrats, fueled by small-dollar contributors, spent heavily on the races in Georgia and Montana, where nominee Rob Quist eventually lost despite a late boom in fundraising.
In those contests, some Democrats chaffed at being pressured by progressives to compete in races they saw as ultimately unwinnable. The defeats also disappointed rank-and-file Democrats, who — especially during the Ossoff race — had begun to believe they would win and deliver a stinging rebuke to President Donald Trump.
But liberals say that Democrats need to send a message that they intend to compete in even unconventional places, especially as Trump suffers low approval ratings.
“Democratic spending in Alabama would send an important message about the party's commitment to invest in voters of color, back candidates who run clearly on racial and economic justice, fund good organizing operations, and, ultimately, seize opportunities to build power in places that the Republican Party has long taken for granted.”
Jones has a profile that could attract support from the same small-dollar contributors who funded Ossoff and Quist: a former U.S. attorney, he prosecuted members of the Ku Klux Klan who bombed four African-American girls during the 1963 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing
Even some Republicans aren't ruling out the possibility that Jones could make the race competitive.
In the final weeks of the runoff, several Alabama Republican county chairs and GOP officials expressed serious concerns about Republican turnout in a general election scenario, given how polarizing both Moore and Strange are in Alabama.
"I think it's an absolute joke," vented one top Republican party activist in the state. "We have put ourselves in a situation where we're going to elect a Democrat. We have two terrible candidates. That means nobody's going to go to the polls, nobody's going to be interested. I don't know anything about the Democrat, but he [seems like] a fairly upstanding citizen. That's my concern. It scares me."
Valerie Judah, the chair of the Houston County, Ala. GOP, said she has heard similar fears, and worries that the ugliness of the primary and runoff might turn off some voters from turning out again.
"I'm concerned, because of the animosity, that might give more votes to the Democratic Party," she said in an interview ahead of the runoff. "From what I've heard, a lot of people in the area, they do not want to vote for either one of the Republican candidates, for whatever reason. It's basically going to be a vote against instead of a vote for."
Not all Republicans are as worried: Brent Buchanan, a GOP strategist based in Alabama, said that many political observers expected moderate Republicans to stay home, or vote for Hillary Clinton, rather than turning out for Donald Trump. In the end, he noted, most of them voted Republican, and he expects the same for Moore.
As they demonstrated in previous special elections, Republicans can win over right-leaning constituencies even with the political headwinds blowing against them, often by just reminding voters that their opponent is a Democrat.
"At the end of the day, they're going to vote for the Republican," Buchanan said. "We're not going to give up a Republican Senate seat from Alabama. They'd rather have Roy Moore as a senator and be at 52 [GOP seats] than lose a Senate seat in the deep South."