ATLANTA – Alabama, one of the most conservative states in the country, with one of the most evangelical electorates, is sending an abortion-rights supporter to the U.S. Senate, despite GOP efforts to paint Democrat Doug Jones as an unacceptable extremist on the issue.
Certainly, any analysis of what Jones' upset over Roy Moore means for other races involves a caveat: The Republican nominee was twice ousted from the state Supreme Court and stood accused of sexual misconduct with minors, baggage that gave Jones an opening in a state that hadn't elected a Democratic senator since 1992.
Yet Jones could not have won without crossover votes from conservative Republicans who oppose abortion, and that's just what he did.
Exit polls show Jones won a third of voters who said abortion should be illegal in most cases, and 27 percent of those who want it outlawed completely.
These numbers suggest that abortion may not necessarily be a defining issue in the 2018 midterm elections.
Abortion is "still a dividing line in American politics," said Republican pollster Greg Strimple, who surveys voters for the Congressional Leadership Fund, the political action committee backed by Speaker Paul Ryan that is helping defend the GOP's House majority.
But a candidate's stand on abortion mobilizes only slices of the two parties' bases, and for most every voter in between, "it's a secondary issue," Strimple said.
There's an argument that this contest was unusually unsavory for conservatives, making them choose between a man accused of preying on girls, and a Democrat. But it's clear that Jones' support of legalized abortion wasn't a deal-breaker for just enough Republicans to give Democrats a 20,000-vote margin, out of more than 1.35 million votes cast.
That's heartening for Democrats looking to dent Republican domination in Congress and statehouses by targeting voters dissatisfied with President Donald Trump and unhappy over Republican moves to roll back Democrats' 2010 health insurance expansion and push tax cuts tilted to corporations and wealthy individuals.
"We are competing on a massive offensive battlefield, in districts that went for both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and that are suburban, rural and urban," said Meredith Kelly of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "Regardless of where they are running, (our) candidates have no reason to compromise on their support for a woman's health care, her right to choose, and her economic security."
Nationwide, polling suggests that a majority of Americans avoid taking an absolutist stance on abortion. According to a Pew assessment in July, the largest plurality is the 33 percent of voters who say abortion should be legal in most cases. The next largest segment, at 25 percent, says it should be legal in all cases. Twenty-four percent say abortion should be illegal in most cases, while just 16 percent say it should be illegal in all cases.
Of course, those voters aren't distributed proportionally across state and congressional boundaries, and partisan leanings are much more intense: 65 percent of self-identified Republicans say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, while 75 percent of Democrats say it should be legal in most or all cases. Independents lean in favor of access, with 60 percent saying it should be legal.
Religious influence sharpens voters' leanings further. White evangelical protestants are the most likely religious group to oppose abortion rights: 70 percent say it should be illegal in most or all cases. Majorities of Catholics, black protestants and mainline protestants all support more access, while unaffiliated voters lean overwhelmingly toward legality.
A state like Alabama, where Republican nominees usually win at least 60 percent of the vote and where half the population is white evangelical protestant (as opposed to a quarter nationally), is more fundamentally anti-abortion than many other states now under Republican control, such as Ohio or Wisconsin, which have far fewer evangelicals proportionally and are typically presidential battlegrounds.
It's also true that nearly all the 91 House districts that national Democrats are targeting are less Republican than Alabama. Democrats need to flip 24 GOP-held seats for a House majority. In the Senate, Republicans will have a narrow 51-49 advantage when Jones is sworn in, meaning they need a net gain of two seats to regain control. Democrats also must defend 10 seats in states where Trump won, but all these states are less conservative than Alabama, perhaps with the exception of North Dakota.
In Alabama, Moore and his supporters certainly tried to make abortion a dividing line. Republicans circulated an interview in which Jones affirmed his position. After losing, Moore highlighted the issue again in a video to supporters explaining his refusal to concede. "Abortion, sodomy and materialism have taken the place of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," he said, lamenting that "we have killed over 60 million of our unborn children."
Yet throughout the campaign, including the months before the sexual misconduct allegations surfaced in early November, Jones stood his ground, certainly not emphasizing abortion rights, but not denying his views when asked.
"Everyone felt like I needed to be someone I was not to try to get votes," he told The Associated Press the day after his election. "I promised myself I would not do that."
Associated Press writer Kim Chandler contributed to this report. Follow Barrow on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BillBarrowAP.