CULLMAN, Ala. — This white working-class town (population: 15,000), roughly midway between Birmingham and Huntsville along Interstate 65, is Roy Moore country.
“There could be a blizzard coming and the roads would be closed and people around here would still walk to the polls to vote for Roy Moore,” said Neal Morrison, a former state representative and, more recently, a member of ousted Republican Gov. Robert Bentley’s cabinet.
We were chatting Thursday afternoon in Bill Floyd’s State Farm insurance office, a few blocks from the fraying downtown temporarily enlivened with Christmas wreaths on every light pole.
The 77-year-old Floyd, a former Cullman County Republican Party chairman with a thick thatch of white hair, had backed the establishment choice, Sen. Luther Strange, in the GOP Senate primary. But Floyd had no hesitancy in switching his allegiance to Moore, even though the twice-defrocked Alabama Supreme Court chief justice now stands accused — with on-the-record statements — of preying on teenage girls as young as 14.
During our 90-minute conversation, Floyd and Morrison never denied the bulk of the charges against Moore. They just steered around them as if the accusations were roadkill in the middle of a two-lane highway.
“We need Roy Moore to represent us in the Senate,” Floyd said, “because his values are in line with Alabama’s.” Stressing the danger of liberal federal judges — an Alabama refrain for more than half a century — Floyd added that “with the Senate so close, we need every seat.”
Morrison, in particular, was concerned that the Moore candidacy might give outsiders the wrong impression about Alabama. “Please write that there is no one in this state who is not sensitive to the potential abuse of children,” he said. “But the key thing was the timing of when this stuff hit.”
“Yellow dog Republicans”
A few hours later at a rooftop bar in downtown Birmingham, I was describing my conversations in Cullman with Robert Corley, a retired historian at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
“That’s what we have in Alabama these days — yellow dog Republicans,” he said. “You don’t vote for individuals. You vote for the party. Republicans are seen as safe since they won’t disrupt our lives.”
Before The Washington Post highlighted Moore’s sexual history with a meticulously documented exposé three weeks ago, his Senate race against Democrat Doug Jones was viewed from afar through the prism of religion and social conservatism.
That shorthand is understandable since Moore was initially known as the “Ten Commandments Judge” for his defiance of a court order to remove a 5,280-pound granite block containing the Biblical injunctions from the front of the state judicial building.
And Wednesday night, speaking in a small-town Baptist church near Mobile, Moore railed against “the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender who want to change our culture.”
But economic populism also plays a role in Moore’s political appeal. During his time on the Alabama bench, attorneys viewed Moore as a rare conservative jurist with an instinctive antipathy to big business. As Corley put it, “Roy Moore is an outsider in Alabama in every way — except religion.”
Even before the modern civil rights movement, Alabama felt beleaguered by outsiders.
In her Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, “Carry Me Home,” Diane McWhorter points out that the mills of Alabama once represented the biggest challenge to J.P. Morgan’s Pittsburgh-based steel empire. Morgan’s solution: During the financial panic of 1907, he swallowed Birmingham’s leading steel producer and made Alabama, in effect, a vassal state.
Mark Kennedy, a former state Supreme Court justice and Democratic Party chairman, was explaining Alabama’s “culture of victimization” as I talked with him and his wife Wednesday night at their Montgomery home.
“One of the talents of George Wallace,” Kennedy said of the late governor, “was that he made Alabamans feel like victims because we were southerners afflicted by the federal courts.”
Kennedy’s wife, Peggy Wallace Kennedy, George’s daughter, broke in to say, “During the civil rights movement, it was not what my father did, it was what you were.” That is, Wallace portrayed himself as the embodiment of the [white] people of the state as he stood in the schoolhouse door in 1963 to block integration at the University of Alabama.
In recent years, Peggy has become an emotional symbol of racial reconciliation as she has joined with Georgia Rep. John Lewis and other heroes of the civil rights struggle at events such as the 50th anniversary of the bloody Selma to Montgomery marches.
Roy Moore, to be sure, neither comes equipped with George Wallace’s political talents nor traffics in 1960s-style racial demagoguery. But if Moore — disowned by most Republicans in Washington aside from Donald Trump — prevails in the Dec. 12 special election, it will fit the pattern of Alabama voters defiantly rejecting the elite opinions of the rest of America.
Jones, in an uphill battle to become Alabama’s first Democratic senator since Sen. Richard Shelby bolted the party in 1994, tries to rise above partisanship. At a Wednesday press conference in front of the Dreamland Bar-B-Que branch in Montgomery, he said, “Don’t define me by a particular political party.”
But the risk in this strategy is that Jones will become so soporific that Alabama voters will tune him out.
As he stood on the sidewalk with his left hand in the pocket of his buttoned suit jacket pocket, Jones lapsed into paint-by-numbers political rhetoric as he talked about “kitchen-table issues like jobs, health care, the economy and making sure our kids are prepared for the 21st century.”
But Cullman — of all places — offered one small encouraging token for Jones.
Trump carried Cullman County with 88 percent of the vote in 2016 and Moore romped home here by a 3-to-1 margin in his tight 2012 statewide victory for the Supreme Court.
After lunch at the Red Door Cafe, rightfully called the best restaurant in Cullman on Yelp, I asked owner Bill McCartney whether his customers were talking about the Senate race.
McCartney replied that people weren’t talking about politics as much as usual. “It’s such a strange election,” he said, “that people don’t know how other people feel about it. So they avoid the topic.”
If Roy Moore supporters can’t automatically recognize each other in Cullman, maybe something is indeed changing in Alabama.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.