BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Democrat Doug Jones has won the special election to fill a Senate seat in Alabama, according to exit polls and returns – a shocking upset in a solidly Republican state, in which massive turnout among African-American voters helped defeat a candidate enthusiastically backed by President Donald Trump.
The Associated Press called the race at 10:23 p.m. Eastern time.
Jones becomes the first Democrat elected to the Senate from Alabama since 1992. The Senate seat came open when President Donald Trump chose former Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., to become attorney general earlier this year.
Jones’ victory followed a pattern set earlier this year in Virginia’s gubernatorial election: a wave of enthusiasm among the Democratic party’s traditional base, which was aided by a swing from Republicans to Democrats among well-educated suburban voters.
Jones, 63, is a former U.S. attorney best known for prosecuting two Ku Klux Klan members for the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham Baptist church, which killed four girls. The bombers were not tried until the 1990s.
He has never held elective office.
Jones’ opponent, Republican Roy Moore, is a former state chief justice who believes that “God’s law” trumps the U.S. Constitution.
In Alabama, the night’s early returns showed Moore ahead, as mainly rural votes came in. But Jones surged ahead after 10 p.m. Eastern, as large cities like Mobile, Montgomery and Birmingham reported huge increases in turnout and large margins for the Democrat. Overall, news reports indicated that statewide turnout had smashed expectations, roughly doubling what officials had predicted.
At Jones’ election-night party in Birmingham, the crowd buzzed with nervous energy as Jones’ victory took shape. Paulette Roby, 67, said she had been worried that Moore would drag the state’s race relations back toward Alabama’s troubled past.
“We’ve got to have somebody that’s going to represent the state of Alabama with good faith,” said Roby, an African-American who said she was active in the civil rights movement. “We can’t go back. Why would we go back?”
Jones’ victory will reshape the calculus of the Senate, where Republicans will see their thin majority shrink from two votes to one. While Republicans are likely to pass a huge tax-reform bill before Jones is officially seated, the rest of the GOP’s agenda may now plunge into jeopardy.
The coalition that backed Jones was sketched out in early exit polls. They indicated that black turnout might be slightly higher than the levels in 2012 and 2008, when Barack Obama was on the ballot. African-Americans made up 28 percent of the electorate in 2008, and 29 percent in 2012. In this election, they made up about 3 in 10 Alabama voters so far on Election Day, according to preliminary exit polls.
By contrast, white evangelical voters seemed to make up a smaller percentage of the electorate this year than they had in past elections. That group made up just over 4 in 10 voters this year, compared with 47 percent of the state’s electorate in both 2012 and 2008 presidential elections, according to Alabama exit polls.
“They’re coming out,” said Kim Payton, a city councilwoman in the town of Hayneville, Ala. – meaning black voters. Hayneville is located in the state’s “black belt” – rural area named for its dark soils, which also has a strong contingent of African-American voters.
One voter in Hayneville, 49 year-old masonry instructor Robert Holcombe, said the allegations against Moore particularly bothered him. “We took Roy Moore to be a church man, an upright man,” Holcombe said. “I have an 18-year-old daughter. I know I wouldn’t want him messing with her at age 14.”
Other exit polls seemed to indicate that this electorate would be different than the one that came to the polls in November 2016. Trump, for instance, won Alabama with 62 percent of the vote in 2016. But preliminary exit polls Tuesday found that just under half of Alabamians approve of Trump’s performance, while about an identical share disapprove. About 4 in 10 voters say they “strongly disapprove” of Trump, compared with just over 3 in 10 who “strongly approve.”
Part of the reason was a scandal that hobbled Moore – the judge who’d built his career as an outspoken voice for Christian morals had reportedly pursued romantic relationships with teenagers while he was in his 30s. Moore has denied any wrongdoing.
During the campaign, Jones sold himself as a centrist who would work with Republicans – and as a politician who would not embarrass Alabama or drive away business.
“This election is going to be one of the most significant in our state’s history in a long time,” Jones said during an election-eve rally in Birmingham. “And we’ve got to make sure that at this crossroads in Alabama’s history, we take the right road.”