CULLMAN, Ala. — Doug Jones, the Democrat working to win a Senate seat that Republicans have held comfortably since the 1990s, is trying not so much to sway swing voters as to recruit them for a moral cause. On a day when his opponent, Republican Roy Moore, made no public appearances, Jones called for Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to resign, then rallied with workplace rights activist Lilly Ledbetter to argue that Alabama risked being left out of the 21st century if it elected Moore.
“We’re not going to lag behind like we have so many movements in the past, like the civil rights movement,” Jones said Wednesday in front of around 200 voters in a small banquet hall here. “We’ve got to make sure that when we look our daughters in the eyes, we know we have an Alabama that will stand for them, that will believe them.”
Ahead of Tuesday’s special election, President Trump’s endorsement of Moore — who is under fire following allegations that he made sexual advances on teenage girls when he was in his 30s — has moved money into the state without dramatically changing the dynamics of the race. Jones, a first-time candidate and former prosecutor who has made few mistakes, dominates the airwaves. Moore, a former judge who boasts about being outspent in every race, is working to rally the state’s Republican majority with a campaign that would be invisible if not for its tumbles into controversy.
Democrats have taken a bracing new tone. In an appearance largely overshadowed by a Moore rally led by former Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon, the typically low-key Jones delivered a slashing speech that warned of Alabama becoming a laughingstock if it sent Moore to the Senate.
“When you see me with a gun, I’ll be climbing in and out of a deer stand or a turkey blind, not prancing around on a stage in a cowboy suit,” Jones said in Birmingham, referring to a moment from a Moore rally in September, when Moore pulled out a gun onstage. “I believe women are every bit as capable as men, that they deserve to be elected to public office, and I damn sure believe and have done my part to ensure that men who hurt little girls should go to jail — not to the U.S. Senate.”
On the air, the Jones campaign has been just as harsh, if not harsher. In a campaign radio ad playing on black radio stations, a narrator first attacks Moore for “refusing to support Medicare and Medicaid,” then portrays the Republican as a bigot.
“Moore has a history of hateful, backward ties,” the narrator says. “A Mississippi KKK group backed Moore’s refusal to enforce federal law. Moore’s organization took $1,000 from a neo-Nazi group. His candidacy is backed by racist alt-right groups. And Moore is a birther, still insisting that Barack Obama was born in Kenya.”
Moore’s campaign, outgunned on television, has responded with umbrage. On Thursday, it declared victory after getting stations to take down an ad by Highway 31, a pro-Jones super PAC, that overstated the allegations several women have made against Moore.
In their own ads, Republicans have hit Jones with the kitchen sink. Mail from the Alabama Republican Party, which received a cash infusion from the Republican National Committee this week, shows voters a younger-looking Jones standing beside Hillary Clinton and warns that he “supports abortion up to birth” and is endorsed by “the nation’s largest LBGTQ group.” A piece of mail from the Moore campaign begins by warning that Jones “supported NFL players kneeling to protest the national anthem.”
The attacks have ramped up as national groups, following Trump’s lead, have swung in behind Moore. On Thursday, the National Rifle Association — which had endorsed Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.) in his losing primary bid but stayed out of the general election — disclosed $55,000 of new spending against Jones. The pro-Trump America First PAC, which has committed $1.1 million to the race, produced an ad that shows pregnant women reviewing sonograms with a narrator warning that Jones would oppose bans on abortion after 20 weeks.
Quietly, some Democrats wonder whether Jones opened himself up to the attacks. The day after Moore won the primary, he told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd that he opposed new restrictions on abortion.
“Everybody wants to attack you, so they are going to make out on those comments what they want to their political advantage,” Jones told AL.com in November, attempting to clean up the interview. And while Moore has lacked the money to effectively attack Jones, Democrats cite abortion as the biggest stumbling block for voters who want Moore to lose but have no use for Democrats.
“This state is strongly pro-life, and the issue cuts across party lines,” said former governor Jim Folsom Jr., who rallied with Jones on Wednesday night. “It’s a wedge issue that Doug has got to deal with.”
Moore meanwhile has given himself very little to do. The candidate made just three public statements in the campaign’s final week but used each to rally voters against the forces behind Jones. He spent parts of a Monday interview on conservative talk radio and a Tuesday rally speech warning that “George Soros’s army” was trying to steal the Senate seat away from Alabamians, referring to the wealthy liberal donor.
On Thursday, Moore gave his longest interview in weeks on a Huntsville-area show usually hosted by Dale Jackson but guest-hosted for nearly 30 minutes by Rep. Ed Henry, a Republican state legislator who endorsed Moore. Moore took advantage of the setup to talk about his kick-boxing hobby, his military service and the unfairness of the media.
“These are false accusations,” Moore said.
“Exactly,” Henry said. “Well, that’s it with soon-to-be-senator Roy Moore.”
The whittled-down Moore campaign, which spent three weeks being denounced by national Republicans, has less of an obvious ground game than the Jones campaign. At Wednesday night’s Jones event here in Cullman, voters walking in the door were given sign-up sheets with potential get-out-the-vote assignments. On Thursday, it clocked its one millionth voter phone call since the Sept. 26 primary. Over the weekend, when an unusual December snowstorm is expected to hit much of the state, the campaign will supplement its unpaid volunteers with door-knockers paid $100 per day.
Their message, like Jones’s, is that Alabamians court disaster if they do not vote. “Think about Roy Moore sitting down with a German CEO and saying, ‘Come on to Alabama. I’m going to demean everybody in the state except for a certain group of people, but we’d love to have your business,’ ” Jones said in Cullman. “Does anybody in this room think Mercedes-Benz would have come to Alabama if Roy Moore had been sitting on the other side of that table? Absolutely not.”
It’s a pitch that has worked in some races with flawed candidates. But the last-minute attacks from Moore on social issues and outsiders fill Democrats with dread.
“They’ve worked well for demagogues here in the past,” Folsom said. “Hopefully we’ll get over that. Sometimes we rise to the occasion and win some elections despite that. And sometimes not.”
Michael Scherer and Sean Sullivan in Washington contributed to this report.