Theodore resident David Connolly squinted into the bright lights of news cameras while he held onto his son. He didn’t recognize what he had just heard and was frustrated.
“Listening to this is embarrassing,” he said while standing outside Magnolia Springs Baptist Church. “To be Christian, to be a good man, you treat everyone the same … I’m not seeing any morals come out of this man.”
Connolly was speaking about Republican United States Senate candidate Roy Moore outside a campaign event at the Theodore church last week. As he spoke, several of Moore’s supporters argued with him off camera.
“How much are you getting paid?” a Moore supporter asked Connolly. Others contradicted Connolly on the meaning of Christianity.
The church’s pastor, Dr. David E. Gonnella, told the standing room-only crowd the event was a Wednesday night church service, but Connolly and others were convinced it was a simple political rally.
The exchange between Connolly and ardent Moore supporters almost perfectly encapsulates the wide range of opinions on both sides about the Dec. 9 special election to fill the seat vacated by former Sen. Jeff Sessions. Moore is facing Democrat Doug Jones in the election.
Following the rally, Moore supporters said they felt their candidate would do a better job protecting their values, despite the fact he’s facing allegations of sexual misconduct from women who were teens when he was in his early 30s.
“I’m a Moore supporter,” Theodore native and Spanish Fort resident Simon Bleyswyk said. “I love to hear him speak because he shares my beliefs.”
Bleyswyk added that the allegations, which first appeared in The Washington Post last month, are part of an attack against Moore and he doesn’t believe any of them.
“I believe he will pull this off,” he said. “I don’t think the people of Alabama will fall for propaganda.”
Moore himself said during the rally that the allegations were propaganda. He pointed supporters to a story allegedly debunking the allegations on the right-leaning One America News Network.
Moore also proclaimed he didn’t know any of the women making the allegations. This is in contrast to comments his own attorney has made in the past and comments Moore himself made in a radio interview with Sean Hannity.
Moore called the allegations “dirty politics.”
“Never once has anything like this been mentioned; it’s odd,” he said. “It’s odd that investigators have [vetted] me for the [district attorney’s] office and the Judicial Inquiry Commission and there has been not one word of sexual impropriety.”
A man was escorted out of the rally after questioning the veracity of Moore’s statements on the allegations, saying, “So, all the girls are lying. Y’all should be ashamed to use a church for this.”
After the outburst, Gonnella warned the crowd that the next such interruption would be turned over to the police.
Moore called the allegations hurtful and said if he’d known that he’d be attacked, he probably wouldn’t have run in the first place. He blamed the attacks on the Washington establishment.
“The reason they don’t want me in Washington is very simple,” Moore told the crowd. “They don’t want to hear about God and they don’t want to hear about the Constitution.”
A few minutes later a disruptive comedian hired by the television show “Jimmy Kimmel Live” to impersonate a Moore supporter was removed. During the rally, it appeared Moore believed the comedian was there to support him. He even thanked him for his seemingly exuberant support.
Magnolia Springs music minister Bill Atkinson didn’t introduce Moore, but led the crowd through two songs, which he said was part of the church service. In 2012, Atkinson was sentenced to two months in prison for his role in destroying evidence that his son, Will, abused young boys at an orphanage the family owned in Honduras. Bill Atkinson did not return a call to the family’s nursery in Theodore for comment. An email sent to his address at the church bounced back.
During the rally, Moore quickly listed issues he would support. He said he’d repeal the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” tomorrow. He said his opponent would “enlarge it.”
“Something that has already been a failure, he’d expand it,” Moore told the crowd.
In an October interview with Lagniappe, Doug Jones called the health care debate a “political football.”
“It is one of those things where Republicans have staked out on ‘repeal and replace’ and Democrats have staked out on ‘hell no, we won’t go,’” Jones said. “We need to have some hearings. We need to find out what’s been working and what has not been working.”
Jones added that he believes the ACA was never meant to be “the end of the conversation.”
“We need to get this out in the open and get people talking to one another,” he said. “I think there have been some opportunities to do that. That’s what I want to do.”
Jones said he would like to find a way to protect people with pre-existing conditions and ensure access to Medicaid and affordable health care, while controlling costs at the same time.
“I think pharmaceutical companies need to be brought into the discussion and they really haven’t been,” he said. “I want to work with all members of both parties to try to do that.”
After endorsing Moore’s opponent Luther Strange in the primary and largely staying out of the race since, President Donald Trump endorsed the Republican nominee Monday on Twitter. In a tweet, Trump cited a recent tax vote to try and convince Alabama voters to choose Moore.
“Democrats [sic] refusal to give even one vote for massive Tax Cuts [sic] is why we need Republican Roy Moore to win in Alabama,” he tweeted. “We need his vote on stopping crime, illegal immigration, Border Wall, Military, Pro Life, V.A., Judges 2nd Amendment and more. No to Jones, a Pelosi/Schumer Puppet!”
In a statement, Moore said he was happy to have the president’s endorsement.
“I am honored to receive the support and endorsement of President Donald Trump,” Moore said. “President Trump knows that the future of his conservative agenda in Congress hinges on this election. I look forward to fighting alongside the president to strengthen our military, secure our border, protect our gun rights, defend the sanctity of life and confirm conservative judges to courts around this nation.”
In the October interview, Jones said he supported some provisions in the tax bill, such as corporate tax cuts, but was fearful of its impact on the middle class.
“I will tell you that from representing people in this state, I’m not going to be in favor of the big tax deductions for the very, very wealthy that I’ve seen come through,” he said. “What I’m seeing from independent studies is the tax is going to do two things: it’s going to increase taxes for lower- and middle-income people and it’s going to drive up our deficit tremendously. Any tax changes we do … the result ought to be something somewhat tax neutral.”
Jones added that a flat tax could be appealing from the standpoint of simplicity, but he didn’t know if it could realistically work.
“I don’t think someone being paid $25,000 per year should be paying the same percentage in taxes as someone making a million a year,” he said. “I just don’t think that’s fair.”
He said a flat tax would never be approved nationwide anyway because of the special interests involved.
“I think the tax code is far too complicated,” Jones said. “I think we can do some things to simplify it, but I still think the graduated way we’ve got it is the way to go.”
At the Theodore rally, Moore told the crowd Jones would not support the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms. But in his October interview with Lagniappe, Jones said the opposite.
“I’m a hunter. I’m a fisherman. I love the outdoors,” Jones said. “I have a safe full of guns, ranging everywhere from pistols, shotguns and rifles. I believe in the Second Amendment.”
For Jones, it’s just a matter of enforcing the laws already on the books.
“There are some pretty good laws that are on there now that have been held to be constitutional, involving convicted felons and others,” he said.
Jones said he doesn’t believe the background check system has been funded appropriately in the past and needs to be streamlined. He did say he would favor outlawing bump stocks after the mass shooting in Las Vegas in October, but would protect gun owners’ rights.
“I am not going to take away anyone’s guns, because they would have to start at my house and I don’t want that to happen,” Jones said.
At the Theodore rally, Moore said he would help to strengthen the military, but didn’t elaborate. Moore also didn’t take questions from local and national media at the event. His campaign did not respond to an email asking for a statement on various issues.
Jones said that while he doesn’t agree with all the decisions that have been made involving the military, he supports supports a strong military, especially after the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
“The bottom line is — first and foremost, this country has got to be protected,” Jones said. “The people have to be protected. That is no longer an issue overseas and around the world, it’s an issue right here at home.”
Jones added that there is still a lot of waste in the U.S. Department of Defense that needs to be weeded out.
“I’ve advocated for an audit of the defense and some of these third-party contractors and how effective they’ve been,” he said.
Moore told supporters he would stop Planned Parenthood funding and work to overturn Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court case that made access to abortion a constitutional right. He added that “liberal judges” who put themselves above the Constitution should be impeached.
Moore was kicked out of office twice as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court for defying court orders.
Jones argued that Roe v. Wade is the law of the land. As for what he’d say to pro-life voters, Jones said he understands their position.
“For most of those folks it’s a moral issue … at the same time, it’s an issue that has been decided for decades and it’s not going to change,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who you elect, it’s not going to change.”
Jones also said his position on abortion has been “distorted” somewhat. Jones said he supports the abortion law the way it stands now, with a ban on most late-term abortions.
“The law for decades has given the woman a right to choose what happens to her own body up to a point, and in those late-term procedures it has to be only in the case of a medical emergency,” Jones said. “I support that. At the end of the day that is one of the most personal decisions a woman can ever make, and I think that decision has to be made in consultation with her partner, her doctor and her faith.”
While polling shows Jones and Moore very close, University of South Alabama Political Science and Criminal Justice Department Chair Philip Haber, Ph.D., said the numbers could be a bit misleading.
“Polls have trouble identifying people who will show up to vote,” he said. “The polls could be different than the results.”
Turnout is usually lower during a special election than during a typical senate election, and senate elections usually generate less turnout than a general presidential election. Haber said this election could be decided by turnout.
Low turnout without an incumbent could still favor Moore because of the numbers of Republicans in the state, Haber said. However, if GOP voters sit out this election due to a number of factors and the Democrats are more mobilized, Jones could pull off an upset.
Both locally and the across the state, the number of registered voters appears to have grown ahead of the Dec. 12 Senate showdown thanks, in part, to an influx of convicted felons who were able to restore their voting rights for the first time in 2017.
As Lagniappe detailed last year, an ambiguous state law previously left the standard for revoking a felon’s right to vote open to interpretation by failing to clearly outline who should lose their voting rights upon conviction and which convicts were eligible to have them restored.
That changed this year with Alabama’s passage of the Definition of Moral Turpitude Act. The law clarified that crimes such as murder, rape and child enticement would cost convicts their voting rights permanently, while specifically excluding lesser offenses such as drug possession and burglary.
It was projected the law could have paved the way for tens of thousands of convicted felons to restore their voting rights, though the state did not make any effort to notify those who had previously been disenfranchised.
To fill that gap, The Ordinary People Society (TOPS), an advocacy group based in Dothan, led an effort to assist felons in registering to vote before the Nov. 27 deadline. In an interview with The Washington Post, TOPS President Kenneth Glasgow speculated the group had registered from 5,000 to 10,000 people across Alabama.
Many on the right — including the Mobile County Republican Party — have couched TOPS’ effort to assist felons as an attempt to steal the election. Moore himself Tweeted that “Democrat operatives” were “REGISTERING THOUSANDS OF FELONS” to swing the election for Jones.
While Glasgow is a Democrat, he is also no stranger to working with felons inside and outside Alabama’s prisons. What’s more, the law allowing these registrations was introduced and passed by a Republican-controlled Legislature and signed into law by a Republican governor.
While there’s currently no way to determine what percentage might be made up of formerly disenfranchised felons, Mobile County has seen a modest increase in registered voters since 2016.
In December 2016 there were 285,776 registered voters, according to the Mobile County Probate Court. Today that number is 286,783 — an increase that does include new voters added to the electorate between the August primary and Dec. 1.
When Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, a Republican, reportedly cast a write-in vote for a “good candidate” instead of Moore, it gave the impression that write-ins could potentially have a measurable impact on the Dec. 12 election.
At least two candidates have launched write-in campaigns since the sexual misconduct allegations against Moore first surfaced — Lee Busby, a 60-year-old retired Marine colonel from Tuscaloosa, and Mac Watson, a small-business owner from Crenshaw County.
Others in the state — including some notable Republicans — have suggested they might cast write-in votes for another member of the GOP, such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose appointment left vacant the U.S. Senate seat for which Jones and Moore are currently vying.
While there’s little statistical chance any write-in candidate could win the election, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill felt the need to issue guidance last week to Alabamians considering a write-in vote on the Dec. 12 ballot.
“When the candidate you would like to vote for is not listed on the ballot, you may vote for that person by writing his or her name in the blank ‘write-in’ box on the ballot,” Merrill said in a press release. “Each contest on the ballot has a ‘write-in’ box. You must also shade in the circle next to that ‘write-in’ box to ensure your vote is tabulated properly.”
Merrill stressed that all write-in votes must be handwritten and clarified that a write-in would override any “straight-party” designation marked on a ballot. He also encouraged voters to be familiar with the spelling of their candidate’s name.
“All votes for ‘write-in’ candidates will be counted in the event that the candidate is qualified to hold the office and not a fictional character,” the release continues. “Additionally, there are no existing stipulations that prohibit a candidate from being elected despite having unsuccessfully run for a party’s nomination, which would normally apply due to Alabama’s ‘sore loser’ law.”
Jason Johnson contributed to this report.
This story was updated to remove an incorrect description of late-term abortion. The proper description has been added.