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Remarkable Win Sends Democratic Candidate To U.S. Senate


The race to replace Jeff Sessions as Alabama senator was never supposed to be close. The state hadn't sent a Democrat to the Senate in 25 years, and Republican Roy Moore was the easy favorite. That is until several women came forward last month accusing Moore of sexual misconduct and assault. Last night, the Democrat, Doug Jones, won that Senate seat by 20,000 votes - or a little more than 1.5 percent.

This sets up the Democratic Party to have 49 seats in the Senate heading into the midterm elections. And this morning, we have a team on the ground in Birmingham, Ala., covering this story, including our co-host, Rachel Martin, who is at member station WBHM.

Hi there, Rachel.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, David.

GREENE: So this is a big upset. Are you beginning to piece together how exactly Doug Jones pulled this off?

MARTIN: Yeah. I mean, this is a remarkable win for the Democrat Doug Jones here. He definitely benefited from the scandals surrounding his Republican opponent, Roy Moore. We're talking about the sexual abuse allegations against Moore. But what really made the difference here was the black vote in this state. We went to a bar last night here in Birmingham, where African-American activists who had been going door-to-door trying to rally the vote, they were celebrating the Jones win.

DEJUANA THOMPSON: To God be the glory...


THOMPSON: ...For the things that he has done...


THOMPSON: ...For the victory that he has won. Woke Vote.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Woke Vote, Woke Vote, Woke Vote...

MARTIN: They're chanting Woke Vote. That's the name of their organization. And the lead organizer of this group is a woman named DeJuana Thompson. You heard her there. She wiped away tears before she addressed the crowd.

THOMPSON: We've done something tonight in the state of Alabama...



THOMPSON: ...That has never been done.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Never, never.

THOMPSON: Black votes....


MIKE MCBRIDE: Whew, (laughter), yeah. This is what I'm talking about, baby. Victory, man.

MARTIN: That voice you heard at the end there, whooping it up, that is Pastor Mike McBride. And we talked to him outside that bar. He's from the Bay Area, but he's one of many African-American activists who came in from out of state to work on the election here in Alabama. And he told me that the sexual abuse allegations against Roy Moore and his inflammatory comments on race did make a difference.

MCBRIDE: I think it animated the base of Christians and faith leaders, you know. All these evangelicals who claim that they have a corner on Jesus - the black church stood up and said that the true Jesus of liberation and justice will always overpower the Jesus of dominance and racial hierarchy and division.

GREENE: Wow, powerful language from that pastor there. Rachel, what about Republicans? It sounded like going into this race that they were so conflicted - I mean, given their views on one side but also, you know, these allegations against their candidate.

MARTIN: Right. So Moore supporters are obviously disappointed this morning. In the end, though, their candidate just underperformed with Republicans. I talked to one young man last night, a guy named Jacob Bobo. He's a registered Republican who voted for Donald Trump in the presidential election. But he told me that he could not vote for Roy Moore because of the allegations against him. So he defected, and he voted for the Democrat, Doug Jones.

He said Moore may have been the Alabama of the past, but he believes Doug Jones is the Alabama of now. So that was some of what we heard outside of the main campaign events. This is what it sounded like when Doug Jones supporters learned of his victory at his closing event in Birmingham.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Cheering, applauding).

MARTIN: Big round of applause there. For more on reaction within the two campaigns, I'm joined here in our studios in Birmingham by NPR's Debbie Elliott, who's actually in Montgomery. Russell Lewis is here in Birmingham.

Good morning to you both.



MARTIN: I want to start with you, Russell. You were at Doug Jones' watch party last night, the celebration there. He's the first Democrat to win a Senate seat in Alabama since 1992. What was the vibe like last night?

LEWIS: Well, you know, there was a lot of nervous anticipation. It took a little while for it to grow, you know, for the excitement to sort of buildup. And, you know, people were watching the results trickle in and were sort of anxious - very, very anxious. The polls, you know, had sort of shown different things in the lead up to last night. But when Doug Jones walked up to the podium, he was all smiles and just, you know, was just excited. And this was one of the first things that he had to say.


DOUG JONES: I am truly, truly overwhelmed. But you know, folks - and you have all heard me say this at one point or another in this campaign - I have always believed that the people of Alabama had more in common than to divide us.


LEWIS: And certainly, as he went on to talk, he talked a lot about bridging the divide and reaching out to others. And that is something that he has pledged to do, something that he intends to do once he gets to Washington. And he took a moment to highlight that just one more time.


JONES: Alabama has been at a crossroads. We have been at crossroads in the past. And unfortunately, we have usually taken the wrong fork. Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, you took the right road.


MARTIN: So a very different scene, Debbie Elliott - you were with Roy Moore's camp last night as the results came in. What was their response when they knew that their candidate had lost?

ELLIOTT: Well, they - it was very somber. It almost seemed like a funeral. They were singing some hymns, including "How Great Thou Art" and "Great Is Thy Faithfulness." There was a lot of praying going on. And then finally, Roy Moore basically came out and basically told them, you know, that you can go home. It's not over yet. We're going to sleep on this. Here's what he said.


ROY MOORE: May God bless you as you go home. May he gave you safe journey. And thank you for coming tonight. It's not over, and it's going to take some time. Thank you.


ELLIOTT: It's not over. It's going to take some time. He says he's going to wait on the vote to be certified, which could be a week from now - or even longer. And if that margin is within one half of a percent, then that means there's an automatic recount. It's unlikely the race is going to be that close. So the option then would be whether the Roy Moore campaign wanted to pay for a recount, and that would cost some money that the campaign doesn't necessarily have.

MARTIN: Right. So Russell Lewis, let's talk about how Doug Jones actually pulled this off. He could not have won without a broad coalition, a lot of different voters, in particular African-Americans. Right?

LEWIS: Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, one of the key storylines, really, here is voter turnout. The predictions were initially that we were going to see a turnout of 18 percent, and then it got bumped up to 25 percent. And ultimately, what we saw was a voter turnout of 40 percent, which is actually a huge number...

MARTIN: Across the electorate?

LEWIS: Yeah - which is a huge number for Alabama for a special election for the only thing that's on the ballot statewide. I've voted here in Birmingham at the same precinct for a decade. I've lived in Birmingham for a decade and vote at the same place. And what I saw when I voted yesterday were long lines, something that you don't ever see, you know, for a special election in this state.

And it wasn't just here in Birmingham. We heard about lines in Montgomery and in Mobile and other places as well. The electorate was energized. They were ready to come out and vote. But he had to focus on women, and he had to focus on the black vote. And here's a voter that I spoke to at Doug Jones' watch party last night. Here's May Stevenson.

MAY STEVENSON: It does not matter what color you are, who you are, what kind of money you make, what your status is. We all are people. And God loves us all, and he proved that tonight.

LEWIS: You know, and a lot of voters - black and white - were troubled by Roy Moore. And it was quick to hear - you know, there was - some of the first things that you would hear from people - here's a man by the name of Alim Thompson.

ALIM THOMPSON: Alabama wins at something besides football. This was a victory for decency - human decency over politics.

MARTIN: So that's the reaction of the Jones supporters. Debbie, how are Moore supporters, though, just internalizing this loss?

ELLIOTT: Well, certainly, they're disheartened. And you've kind of got two groups here. You've got the religious conservatives, who've been with Moore through both of his expulsions from the state Supreme Court. They look at this as this battle between good and evil. Here's what Paige Herring from Montgomery said as she was leaving the party last night.

PAIGE HERRING: Well, I think it's a sad day for the whole nation.

ELLIOTT: And so you have sadness on the one hand. Then you have Republican voters who were behind Moore simply because they thought he'd help push President Trump's agenda. Here's former state representative Perry Hooper Jr. He was active in the Trump campaign in Alabama last year.

PERRY HOOPER JR.: It was a setback to me to America that Roy Moore was not elected. We needed that 52nd vote in Washington, D.C., in the United States Senate.

MARTIN: Debbie, does this mean Democrats can now compete in the South?

ELLIOTT: Well, it certainly gives them hope. And there's probably some lessons on coalition-building. And I have to remark that, you know, given the significance of African-American voters in Alabama giving Doug Jones this victory, you have to think about the reason the nation has the Voting Rights Act is because of Alabama and what happened in Selma. So certainly, that's why there's such a celebration here among that group. But the party infrastructure is lacking. So it's time to start working on that is what I'm hearing from activists.

You also have to look at this as the dynamic shifting in part because of a flawed Republican candidate, not just the dramatic allegations of sexual misconduct but Moore was controversial before. And we saw that same dynamic play out in Louisiana when Democrat John Bel Edwards picked up the governorship in that Southern state by beating a Republican candidate, Senator David Vitter, who just had too much baggage. So there's certainly some lessons to be gleaned here.

MARTIN: NPR's Debbie Elliott - and NPR's Russell Lewis here with me in the studios of WBHM in Birmingham, Ala., Debbie in Montgomery. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
As NPR's Southern Bureau chief, Russell Lewis covers issues and people of the Southeast for NPR — from Florida to Virginia to Texas, including West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. His work brings context and dimension to issues ranging from immigration, transportation, and oil and gas drilling for NPR listeners across the nation and around the world.