It was supposed to be a cakewalk for the Republicans: A special election to fill a vacant Senate seat in one of the nation’s deepest-red states.

But Tuesday’s vote in Alabama has turned into a hard-fought battle over both the limits of the nativist populism that carried Donald Trump to the presidency, and accountability for powerful men accused of sexual misconduct.

At stake is the GOP’s precarious control of the upper house. With just 52 of 100 seats, losing a single one would make it even easier for moderate Republicans to block Mr. Trump’s agenda.

For the Democrats, the race represents an opportunity to turn the tide in one of the country’s most conservative places and continue the party’s comeback from the political wilderness. The latest Real Clear Politics average of polls shows them 3.8 per cent behind the GOP in a state Republicans typically win by 25 percentage points or more.

It’s all because of Roy Moore.

The former judge, who upset an establishment Republican earlier this fall to take the party’s nomination, has argued the United States was last “great” during the era of slavery, said “homosexual conduct” should be a crime and compared the Koran to Mein Kampf.

He was twice booted from office as Alabama’s chief justice: Once for installing a Ten Commandments monument in the courthouse and again for ordering the state’s judicial system to disregard a Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage.

A self-styled “values” politician, he has been accused of molesting underage girls when he was a state prosecutor in the 1970s. After initially delivering a handful of carefully worded semi-denials, Mr. Moore now says he did not even know his accusers.

The election has divided the GOP, with some calling on Mr. Moore to drop out and others – including Mr. Trump’s nationalistic former chief strategist Steve Bannon – lining up enthusiastically behind him.

The race may hinge on committed Republicans such as Walt Pittman.

The bespectacled, 56-year-old real estate appraiser wants to see Obamacare repealed and a massive package of tax cuts signed into law.

He’s also a fan of Mr. Trump’s “America First” agenda, particularly the President’s promise to strengthen the country’s borders. But he’s troubled by Mr. Moore.

“He’s overboard with religion. I don’t trust anybody who wears it on his sleeve like he does,” Mr. Pittman said as he sat with his wife, Liz, in a cavernous downtown Birmingham concert hall before a rally for Democratic candidate Doug Jones on Saturday night. “And I don’t doubt a lot of the things women accuse him of.”

Mr. Pittman didn’t yet know if he could vote against the party to which he’s long been loyal, but he wanted to give Mr. Jones as much opportunity as possible to persuade him.

The previous night, a Trump rally drew legions of Mr. Moore’s supporters to an arena in Pensacola, Fla., where they evinced the same near-religious devotion to the senate candidate that the President inspires in his followers.

Nadja and James Lanciotti, who moved to Alabama’s Gulf Coast from New York last month, said they rushed to register as voters in their new state so they could mark their ballots for Mr. Moore. They particularly like his unabashed embrace of religion and guns; at one rally, he even pulled out a pistol on stage.

The Lanciottis flatly don’t believe the accusations against Mr. Moore, arguing there must be some sort of conspiracy between the seven women who have spoken out – all in on-the-record interviews or news conferences – and their candidate’s political opponents.

“These accusations came in at the last minute. That’s how the Democrats work,” said Ms. Lanciotti, a 52-year-old accountant.

“These are allegations from 40 years ago. Where’s the proof? What’s the motive?” said Mr. Lanciotti, 45, a former NYPD sergeant. “I was a cop; I know there are many false allegations.”

Mr. Trump has vacillated in his support for Mr. Moore. After initially opting not to campaign for him, the President endorsed the candidate last week and held his Christmas-themed rally just 20 minutes from the Alabama state line.

Other Republicans are still on the fence. John Finch, a 49-year-old nurse from southern Alabama, supports same-sex marriage and understands why Mr. Moore’s attempts to mix church and state have gotten him thrown out of office. But he still may vote for him.

“I’m going more with the party,” he said, standing near the front of the Trump rally. “But I really need to look at Doug Jones more.”

A former prosecutor best known for securing convictions against two Klansmen who blew up a black church in Birmingham, Mr. Jones has tried to both motivate his Democratic base with promises of better health care and reach out to people such as Mr. Finch with blunt appeals to stop Mr. Moore. Mr. Jones’s ads on the state’s ubiquitous country-music stations feature clips of Richard Shelby, Alabama’s sitting GOP senator, disparaging Mr. Moore.

And the party is mounting a massive get-out-the-vote effort as the clock ticks down, with free concerts, three-times-a-day canvasses in cities around the state and a parade of prominent Democrats – including New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick – flying in to campaign.

At Mr. Jones’s Birmingham rally, the day after a snowstorm blasted the city, the room was half-empty. But the supporters who showed up dared to let themselves dream that they could put a freeze on right-wing populism in this most unlikely of states.

“We’re saying no to sexism and no to bigotry, and we’re saying it loud,” said Allison Coleman, a 29-year-old cleaning-company owner. “And if Alabama isn’t down with sexist bigots, no one is.”

Mr. Jones himself seemed giddy as he took the stage.

“When we started this campaign in May, it was warm and sunny,” he said. “And so many people around, when somebody would ask them ‘What kind of chances do you think Doug has?’ People would say, ‘Well, you know, they’re probably about the same odds as getting a five-inch snow in Birmingham.'”

The Globe and Mail, December 10, 2017