Turbulent U.S. Senate race now in hands of Alabama voters
Roy Moore, who arrived on horse to vote, carries baggage that leaves outcome in red state in doubt
Depending on who is making the case, Alabama's special Senate election Tuesday is about either continuing the "Trump miracle" in Washington or allowing "decency" to prevail back home.
At the centre is Roy Moore — "Judge Moore" to his supporters. The 70-year-old Republican was twice ousted as state Supreme Court chief justice after flouting federal law, and now he's attempting a political resurrection amid accusations of sexual misconduct with teenage girls when he was in his 30s.
In Moore's path is Democrat Doug Jones, a 63-year-old former U.S. attorney best known for prosecuting two Ku Klux Klansmen who killed four black girls in a 1963 church bombing.
Despite that successful prosecution, Donald Trump has cast Jones as weak on crime, including in a Tuesday morning election day tweet that urged voters to cast ballots for Moore.
The winner will take the seat previously held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Republicans hold a narrow 52-48 Senate majority. A routine election in Republican-dominated Alabama wouldn't be expected to alter that balance, because Alabamians haven't sent a Democrat to the upper chamber of Congress since 1992. Trump notched a 28 percentage point win here in 2016 and remains popular in the state.
History of controversies
But Moore's baggage leaves the outcome enough in doubt that both Trump and his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, have weighed in with last-minute robocalls trying to sway voters.
Prior to the allegations about sexual misconduct, Moore expressed skepticism Obama was born in the U.S., has said Minnesota congressman Keith Ellison shouldn't be allowed to serve in office because he's Muslim and was reprimanded by the state's highest judiciary review board for flouting Supreme Court rulings on same-sex marriage, leading to costly legal challenges for the state.
He was suspended by the review board, which found his behaviour "grossly inconsistent with his duties."
Moore, accompanied by wife Kayla, rode his horse Sassy to the polls to cast his ballot at a rural fire station in the northeast Alabama community of Gallant.
He spoke briefly to reporters, talking in generalities and not discussing allegations that he sexually molested teenage girls decades ago.
Moore expressed confidence that he will win and said the time to discuss whether he's allowed to take a seat in the Senate will be after the election. Sitting senators and congressmen such as Sen. Al Franken and Rep. John Conyers have faced calls to resign, with congressional committees expected to launch inquiries.
A few hours before the polls closed, there were signs of heightened security outside the site of Moore's election night party. Men in SWAT uniforms were seen videoing the building's exterior.
Campaign spokesperson Hannah Ford said the campaign had previously received threats.
Ford also confirmed that the campaign had denied press credentials for the Washington Post, which first reported the allegations of sexual misconduct against Moore.
Early Tuesday at Legion Field, a predominantly black precinct in Birmingham, voters lined up to cast their ballots in a stadium office. Blue-tinted posters of college football players and cheerleaders lined one wall, and about 20 Jones posters were planted near the parking lot.
"I do not want to see Roy Moore go in there. We don't need a pedophile in there," said Teresa Brown, 53, an administrative assistant at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who was voting at Legion Field. "We need someone that's going to represent the state of Alabama, work across party lines … just be there for all the people, not just a select few of the people."
'I believe he is an honourable man'
Al Bright, 63, who does refrigeration repair, voted for Moore.
"I just believe regardless of the allegations against him, I believe he is an honourable man," Bright said.
Bright said he realized some people criticize Moore because he was removed from office after actions he took to try to block same-sex marriage in the state.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with that, because I believe in that as well," he said. "I feel the same — marriage is between a man and a woman."
Mary Multrie, 69, who works at a children's hospital and voted for Jones, said she was not influenced by accusations of sexual misconduct against Moore because she already did not like him. "He's not a truthful man," Multrie said of Moore. "He talks about God, but you don't see God in his actions."
Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill said early Tuesday that turnout for the special election could be unusually high.
In his final pitch before polls open, Jones called the choice a "crossroads" and asked that "decency" prevail.
"We've had this history in the past, going down the road that … has not been productive," Jones said. "We've lagged behind in industry. We've lagged behind in education. We've lagged behind in health care. It's time we take the road that's going to get us on the path to progress."
Alabama's senior senator, Richard Shelby, confirmed publicly that he wrote in a "distinguished Alabama Republican" rather than vote for Moore.
Moore, wife slam 'fake' reports
At his own election eve rally, Moore again denied all the allegations, calling them "disgusting" and offering voters a clear measure: "If you don't believe in my character, don't vote for me." Earlier in the day, Moore cast himself as the victim. "It's just been hard, a hard campaign," he said.
Many Republicans, however, see an opportunity to defend the state's conservative, evangelical bent in the face of unfair liberal criticism while delivering another victory for Trump and sending an anti-establishment senator into a federal government that has been reflexively unpopular among Alabama majorities for generations.
Trump's campaign architect and former White House adviser Steve Bannon told Moore supporters Monday evening that the race is a "national election" that will determine whether the "Trump miracle" continues. Moore says he is aligned with the president and he makes similar arguments to Trump, blasting "the elite" in the "swamp" of Washington, D.C.
For Jones to win, he must build an atypical coalition, maximizing turnout among African-American voters and white liberals who often don't combine for more than 40 per cent of the electorate, while coaxing votes from enough white Republicans who can't pull the lever for Moore.
One of Jones's celebrity backers framed the choice as being much less complicated.
"I love Alabama," said Leeds native and former NBA basketball star Charles Barkley, "but at some point we've got to draw a line in the sand and say, 'We're not a bunch of damn idiots."'
With files from CBC News