Democrat takes narrow lead in bitter U.S. Senate race in Alabama

MONTGOMERY, Ala., Dec 12 (Reuters) - A bitter U.S. Senate race in Alabama with high stakes for President Donald Trump was too close to call on Tuesday, with Democrat Doug Jones taking a slight lead over Republican Roy Moore with about 86 percent of the vote counted.

Jones, 63, a former U.S. attorney, led Moore, 70, a former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice, by about 7,000 votes. The Moore campaign has been dogged by allegations of sexual misconduct against teenagers.

Jones hopes to pull off an upset victory in a race in the deeply conservative Southern state that will test the political clout of Trump, who endorsed Moore. A win by Moore would strengthen Trump's grip on the Republican Party, as other Republican leaders have refused to back Moore.

A Jones victory could mean trouble for Trump and his populist political base. It would narrow the Republicans' already slim majority in the U.S. Senate, possibly making it harder for Trump to advance his policy agenda.

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Roy Moore on Senate election day in Alabama
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Roy Moore on Senate election day in Alabama
Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Judge Roy Moore rides his horse after voting in Gallant, Alabama, U.S., December 12, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore speaks to the media after he cast his ballot in Gallant, Alabama, U.S., December 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
"Make America Great Again" hats lie on a table at Republican U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore's election night party in Montgomery, Alabama, U.S. December 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore speaks to the media after he cast his ballot in Gallant, Alabama, U.S., December 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 11: Judge Roy Moore rides away on his horse after voting at the Gallant Volunteer Fire Department in Gallant, Ala., on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
A saxophonist entertains the guests gathered for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore's election night party in Montgomery, Alabama, U.S. December 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 11: Judge Roy Moore emerges to speak to the media after voting at the Gallant Volunteer Fire Department in Gallant, Ala., on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Supporters perform the Pledge of Allegiance at Republican U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore's election night party in Montgomery, Alabama, U.S. December 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Judge Roy Moore walks his horses after voting in Gallant, Alabama, U.S., December 12, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman
Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore speaks to the media after he cast his ballot in Gallant, Alabama, U.S., December 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
UNITED STATES - DECEMBER 11: Judge Roy Moore ties his horse to a fence as he arrives to vote at the Gallant Volunteer Fire Department in Gallant, Ala., on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Roy Moore, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate from Alabama, arrives on horseback to a polling location in Gallant, Alabama, U.S., on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017. Democrat Doug Jones and Moore made their election eve pitches to Alabama voters in settings that evoked the cultural and political divide that's come to define the two parties in modern America. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images
MONTGOMERY, AL - DECEMBER 12: Mike Tate holds his son, Seth Tate, as he and his family await the arrival of Republican Senatorial candidate Roy Moore for his election night party in the RSA Activity Center on December 12, 2017 in Montgomery, Alabama. Mr. Moore is facing off against Democrat Doug Jones in the special election for the U.S. Senate. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Republican Senatorial candidate Roy Moore (L) and his wife Kayla ride their horses to the polling station to vote in Gallant, AL, on December 12, 2017. The state of Alabama holds a closely-watched special election for US Senate featuring Republican candidate Roy Moore, who is endorsed by President Donald Trump despite being accused of molesting teenaged girls. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Republican Senatorial candidate Roy Moore (C) departs on his horse, Sassy, at the polling station after voting in Gallant, AL, on December 12, 2017 The state of Alabama holds a closely-watched special election for US Senate featuring Republican candidate Roy Moore, who is endorsed by President Donald Trump despite being accused of molesting teenaged girls. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
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Moore has been accused by multiple women of pursuing them when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s, including one woman who said he tried to initiate sexual contact with her when she was 14. Moore has denied any misconduct and Reuters has not independently verified any of the accusations.

The accusations come amid a wave of such allegations against powerful men, including Trump. Democrats have signaled that, if Moore wins, they will try to tar Republicans as insensitive to women’s concerns.

Network exit polls showed Trump was not a factor in the decision for about half of Alabama voters. Some 29 percent said they voted to express support for Trump, and 20 percent said they voted to oppose him.

Exit polls also showed a heavy African-American turnout, a core constituency whose support is vital for Jones, with about 30 percent of the expected electorate black.

Moore showed up to vote at the Gallant Fire Department in northern Alabama on horseback, wearing a cowboy hat.

In nearby Gadsden, Louis Loveman, 73, a retired librarian and self-described lifelong Republican, said he voted for Jones. "It's simple," he said. "I don't trust Roy Moore."

'TOO MANY ALLEGATIONS'

"There are too many allegations floating out there for there not to be fire behind all that smoke. I never voted for a Democrat before, but I did today," Loveman said.

Polling locations around Montgomery, the state capital, saw a steady stream of visitors throughout the morning, and anecdotal reports from across the state suggested a relatively high turnout elsewhere as well.

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill told the AL.com news site that he expected roughly 25 percent of registered voters would participate, lower than the 64 percent who voted in last year's presidential election.

Several voters said the sexual misconduct allegations were inconclusive. "They're speculation," said retiree Robert Morrison, 74.

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Doug Jones on Senate election day in Alabama
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Doug Jones on Senate election day in Alabama
Democratic Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Doug Jones casts his vote at Brookwood Baptist Church in Mountain Brook, Alabama, U.S. December 12, 2017. REUTERS/Marvin Gentry
MOUNTAIN BROOK, AL - DECEMBER 12: Democratic senatorial candidate Doug Jones greets supporters after voting at Brookwood Baptist Church on December 12, 2017 in Mountain Brook, Alabama. Doug Jones is facing off against Republican Roy Moore in a special election for U.S. Senate. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
BESSEMER, AL - DECEMBER 12: A supporter of democratic Senatorial candidate Doug Jones holds a sign outside of a polling station at the Bessemer Civic Center on December 12, 2017 in Bessemer, Alabama. Doug Jones is facing off against Republican Roy Moore in a special election for U.S. Senate. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
BESSEMER, AL - DECEMBER 12: Democratic Senatorial candidate Doug Jones (L) prepares to greet voters outside of a polling station at the Bessemer Civic Center on December 12, 2017 in Bessemer, Alabama. Doug Jones is facing off against Republican Roy Moore in a special election for U.S. Senate. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
BESSEMER, AL - DECEMBER 12: Democratic Senatorial candidate Doug Jones (L) greets voters outside of a polling station at the Bessemer Civic Center on December 12, 2017 in Bessemer, Alabama. Doug Jones is facing off against Republican Roy Moore in a special election for U.S. Senate. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
BESSEMER, AL - DECEMBER 12: Democratic senatorial candidate Doug Jones prepares to greet voters outside of a polling station at the Bessemer Civic Center on December 12, 2017 in Bessemer, Alabama. Doug Jones is facing off against Republican Roy Moore in a special election for U.S. Senate. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Doug Jones, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate from Alabama, center, stands for a photograph with voters outside a polling location in Bessemer, Alabama, U.S., on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017. Jones and Republican Roy Moore made their election eve pitches to Alabama voters in settings that evoked the cultural and political divide that's come to define the two parties in modern America. Photographer: Nicole Craine/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Doug Jones, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate from Alabama, stands for a photograph with voters outside a polling location in Bessemer, Alabama, U.S., on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017. Jones and Republican Roy Moore made their election eve pitches to Alabama voters in settings that evoked the cultural and political divide that's come to define the two parties in modern America. Photographer: Nicole Craine/Bloomberg via Getty Images
BESSEMER, AL - DECEMBER 12: Democratic senatorial candidate Doug Jones takes a picture with voters outside of a polling station at the Bessemer Civic Center on December 12, 2017 in Bessemer, Alabama. Doug Jones is facing off against Republican Roy Moore in a special election for U.S. Senate. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Democratic Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Doug Jones walks to his vehicle along with his wife Louise at Brookwood Baptist Church in Mountain Brook, Alabama, U.S. December 12, 2017. REUTERS/Marvin Gentry
Democratic Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Doug Jones speaks with the media after casting his vote at Brookwood Baptist Church in Mountain Brook, Alabama, U.S. December 12, 2017. REUTERS/Marvin Gentry
Democratic Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Doug Jones arrives to vote at Brookwood Baptist Church in Mountain Brook, Alabama, U.S. December 12, 2017. REUTERS/Marvin Gentry
Democratic Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Doug Jones speaks with the media after casting his vote at Brookwood Baptist Church in Mountain Brook, Alabama, U.S. December 12, 2017. REUTERS/Marvin Gentry
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Geneva Calvert, 80, said she was voting for Moore because he would help advance Trump's agenda. "He stands for what President Trump stands for," she said.

But Peggy Judkins, 48, said she voted for Jones and that Moore was a bad candidate before "all this molesting stuff," noting he had been twice removed from the state Supreme Court for defying federal court rulings.

"Moore got thrown out of office two or three times before," she said. "So why would you put him back in? That's crazy."

Republicans have been bitterly divided over whether it is better to support Moore to protect their Senate majority or shun him because of the sexual misconduct allegations.

Several prominent Republican senators have distanced themselves from Moore and a political group that works to elect Republicans to the chamber has stayed out of the race.

Alabama's senior U.S. senator, Richard Shelby, said he did not vote for Moore. Without mentioning Moore by name, Republican former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, an African-American who grew up in Alabama, called the special election "one of the most significant in Alabama’s history."

'VOTE ROY MOORE!'

But Trump endorsed Moore last week.

"Roy Moore will always vote with us. VOTE ROY MOORE!" Trump said in a Twitter post in which he criticized Jones as a potential "puppet" of the Democratic congressional leadership.

On the eve of Tuesday's election, Moore was joined on the campaign trail by Steve Bannon, Trump's former chief strategist, who blasted Republican critics.

"There's a special place in hell for Republicans who should know better," he said.

Moore has combined a hard-edged social conservatism with many of Trump's populist themes. He has said homosexual activity should be illegal and has argued against removing segregationist language from the state constitution.

No Democrat has held a U.S. Senate seat from Alabama in more than 20 years. In 2016, Trump won the state by 28 percentage points over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Jones has touted a record that includes prosecuting former Ku Klux Klan members responsible for the 1963 bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama, in which four girls were killed.

He spent the past week rallying African-Americans, the most reliably Democratic voters in the state, and hammering Moore in television ads. He has told supporters his campaign is a chance to be on the "right side of history for the state of Alabama."

"Judge Moore has been consistently wrong about the Constitution," Jones said to reporters after voting on Tuesday at a Baptist church in Birmingham. "I don't think Roy Moore is going to win this election."

If Jones wins on Tuesday, Republicans would control the Senate by a 51-49 margin, giving Democrats momentum ahead of the November 2018 congressional elections, when control of both chambers of Congress will be at stake.

(Additional reporting by Rich McKay in Gadsden, Ala. and Julia Harte, Susan Cornwell and Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Caren Bohan and John Whitesides; Editing by Bill Trott and Peter Cooney)

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