BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) – Alabama’s race for U.S. Senate settled into church for worship on Sunday, with the minister at a historic black congregation calling the race a life-or-death matter for equal rights, conservatives standing by Republican Roy Moore and others feeling unsettled in the middle.
Speaking at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, where four black girls died in a Ku Klux Klan bombing in 1963, the Rev. Arthur Price evoked the civil rights era between hymns. Democratic nominee Doug Jones prosecuted the last two Klansmen convicted in the attack and has attended events at the church, a downtown landmark with twin domed towers.
“There’s too much at stake for us to stay home,” Price said of Tuesday’s election. He didn’t endorse Jones from the pulpit but in a later interview called the candidate “a hero” to the congregation and Birmingham.
Despite allegations of sexual misconduct involving teen girls decades ago, Moore isn’t being abandoned by worshippers at Montgomery’s Perry Hill Road Baptist Church, where Moore spoke at a “God and Country” rally in September before the accusations arose.
Leaving the red-brick building after a service that ended with a hymn and an altar call, Kevin Mims said he didn’t believe the claims against Moore. But even if true, he said, they occurred long ago, and Moore is a conservative who stands “on the word of God.”
“Everyone has to vote their convictions,” said Mims, holding a Bible. “My conviction is he’s the right man for the job.”
Lines aren’t so clearly defined elsewhere.
Interviews with a dozen parishioners at Mobile’s Ashland Place United Methodist Church, the home church of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, turned up neither any Moore defenders nor confirmed votes for Jones. The prevailing mood seemed to be one of frustration over having to choose between a Republican with Moore’s baggage and any Democrat.
“I will vote for Judge Moore,” said Bill Prine, of Mobile. “I’m not a fan of his, but I’ll have to stick with the Republicans.”
The candidates also spent time in church. Accompanied by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala), and others, Jones tweeted a photo from More Than Conquerors Faith Church, a large black congregation in Birmingham. Aides to Moore, who has been almost invisible on the campaign trail during the closing days of the race, didn’t disclose his whereabouts Sunday.
After church, Jones told supporters in a cramped campaign office that the results of Tuesday’s vote would send a message far beyond Alabama’s borders.
“This is an election to tell the whole world what we stand for,” he said, adding: “This campaign, ladies and gentlemen, is on the right side of history.”
President Donald Trump weighed in on the race with a phone message that state voters will receive beginning Monday urging them to vote for Moore.
“I’m going to make America safer and stronger and better than ever before. But we need that seat; we need Roy voting for us,” Trump said in audio of the call provided by the Moore campaign.
Polls show the race too close to call. While Moore had a clear path to victory in a state where no Democrat holds statewide office, the 70-year-old has been fighting for his political life since reports surfaced a month ago that he made sexual advances on teen girls when he was a deputy district attorney in his 30s.
Speaking on CNN on Sunday, GOP Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby said allegations that Moore molested a 14-year-old were the “tipping point” in his decision to cast a write-in ballot for a “distinguished Republican” rather than to vote for Moore or Jones.
“There’s a lot of smoke,” Shelby said. “Got to be some fire somewhere.”
Roy Moore’s chief strategist, Dean Young, tried to tie Moore to the star of President Donald Trump, who remains popular among state Republicans despite low national approval ratings.
“If the people of Alabama vote for this liberal Democrat Doug Jones, they’re voting against the president, who they put in office at the highest level,” Young said on ABC News’ “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”
In a state considered part of the Bible Belt, the allegations transformed a race into an unexpected referendum on which is better: a man accused of child molestation claims he vehemently denies or a Democrat?
For many conservative Republicans, there’s really no choice.
“To me, there’s only one person in the race, and that’s Judge Moore,” said David Smith, leaving Perry Hill Baptist with his wife, Cecilia. The two have a recording of Moore’s speech earlier this year at their church and sometimes listen to it in the car for inspiration.
At 16th Street Baptist, Merion Turner recalled participating in civil rights marches and was in high school at the time of the bombing. Turner said she would vote for the Democrat on Tuesday, though her choice has little to do with the allegations of sexual misconduct against Moore.
“I just don’t like all the division in this country right now,” she said. “I think Doug Jones would help that.”
Chandler reported from Montgomery; Barrow reported from Mobile. Associated Press writer Jay Reeves contributed to this report from Birmingham.