Voters head to polls in Alabama race with high stakes for Trump

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (Reuters) - Voters in Alabama were headed to the polls on Tuesday in a hard-fought U.S. Senate race in which President Donald Trump has endorsed fellow Republican Roy Moore, whose campaign has been clouded by allegations of sexual misconduct toward teenagers.

Moore, 70, a former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice, is battling Democrat Doug Jones, 63, a former U.S. attorney who is hoping to pull off an upset victory in the deeply conservative Southern state.

Polls open at 7 a.m. (1300 GMT) in the Alabama special election for the seat vacated by Republican Jeff Sessions, who became U.S. attorney general in the Trump administration.

The Alabama contest has divided the Republican Party.

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Roy Moore and his wife, Kayla, through the years
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Roy Moore and his wife, Kayla, through the years
GALLANT, AL - SEPTEMBER 26: Alabama Republican U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore on Sassy and wife Kayla on Sundance ride their horses to the Gallant Fire Hall to vote in today's GOP runoff election September 26, 2017 in Gallant, Alabama. Moore is running against Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL) to fill Jeff Session's seat. (Photo by Hal Yeager/Getty Images)
Republican Roy Moore, along with his wife Kayla, arrive at the RSA Activity Center in Montgomery, Alabama, U.S. September 26, 2017, during the runoff election for the Republican nomination for Alabama's U.S. Senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. REUTERS/Marvin Gentry
Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore and his wife Kayla arrive at state Supreme Court in Montgomery, Alabama, November 13, 2003. Moore, whose refusal to obey a U.S. order to move a Ten Commandments monument fueled a national debate over the place of God in public life, was stripped of his office by a state judicial panel on Thursday. REUTERS/Bob Ealum BE/SV
Suspended Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore (R) exits the Alabama Supreme Court chamber with his wife Kayla following the reading of the verdict of the Alabama Court of the Judiciary at the Alabama Judicial Building in Montgomery, Alabama, November 13, 2003. Moore, whose refusal to obey a U.S. order to move a Ten Commandments monument fueled a national debate over the place of God in public life, was stripped of his office by a state judicial panel on Thursday. REUTERS/Mickey Welsh /Advertiser/POOL MW/SV
Ex-Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka (L) campaigns for U.S. Senate candidate Judge Roy Moore, with his wife Kayla Moore (R), at the Historic Union Station Train Shed in Montgomery, Alabama, U.S. September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Tami Chappell
Judge Roy Moore's wife Kayla participates in the Mid-Alabama Republican Club's Veterans Day Program in Vestavia Hills, Alabama, U.S., November 11, 2017. REUTERS/Marvin Gentry
BIRMINGHAM, AL - NOVEMBER 16: Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Judge Roy Moore speaks as his wife Kayla Moore looks on during a news conference with supporters and faith leaders, November 16, 2017 in Birmingham, Alabama. Moore refused to answer questions regarding sexual harassment allegations and pursuing relationships with underage women. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
BIRMINGHAM, AL - NOVEMBER 16: Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Judge Roy Moore and his wife Kayla Moore exit a news conference with supporters and faith leaders, November 16, 2017 in Birmingham, Alabama. Moore refused to answer questions regarding sexual harassment allegations and pursuing relationships with underage women. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
MONTGOMERY, AL - SEPTEMBER 26: Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Alabama, Roy Moore and his wife Kayla greet supporters at an election-night rally on September 26, 2017 in Montgomery, Alabama. Moore, former chief justice of the Alabama supreme court, defeated incumbent Luther Strange in a primary runoff election for the seat vacated when Jeff Sessions was appointed U.S. Attorney General by President Donald Trump. Moore will now face Democratic candidate Doug Jones in the general election in December. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
GALLANT, AL - SEPTEMBER 26: Alabama Republican U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore and wife Kayla leave the Gallant Fire Hall after voting in today's GOP runoff election September 26, 2017 in Gallant, Alabama. Moore is running against Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL) to fill Jeff Session's seat. (Photo by Hal Yeager/Getty Images)
MONTGOMERY, AL - SEPTEMBER 26: Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Alabama, Roy Moore and his wife Kayla greet supporters at an election-night rally on September 26, 2017 in Montgomery, Alabama. Moore, former chief justice of the Alabama supreme court, defeated incumbent Luther Strange in a primary runoff election for the seat vacated when Jeff Sessions was appointed U.S. Attorney General by President Donald Trump. Moore will now face Democratic candidate Doug Jones in the general election in December. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
GALLANT, AL - SEPTEMBER 26: Alabama Republican U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, mother Evelyn Ridgeway (L), and wife Kayla (R) prepare to vote at the Gallant Fire Hall in today's GOP runoff election September 26, 2017 in Gallant, Alabama. Moore is running against Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL) to fill Jeff Session's seat. (Photo by Hal Yeager/Getty Images)
Ex-Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka (L) applauds as he campaigns for U.S. Senate candidate Judge Roy Moore with his wife Kayla Moore (R) at the Historic Union Station Train Shed in Montgomery, Alabama, U.S., September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Tami Chappell TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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Trump has strongly backed Moore, but several other Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have distanced themselves from the candidate.

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. Reuters has not independently verified any of the accusations.

On the eve of Tuesday's election, Moore was joined on the campaign trail by Steve Bannon, Trump's former chief strategist and an executive at the right-wing Breitbart News site.

Bannon framed the Alabama election as a showdown between establishment elites and populist power and excoriated Republicans who declined to support Moore.

"There’s a special place in hell for Republicans who should know better,” Bannon said.

COURTING EVANGELICALS

Moore has made conservative Christian beliefs a centerpiece of his campaign and sought to energize evangelicals in Alabama. He has said homosexual activity should be illegal and has argued against removing segregationist language from the state constitution.

Moore told the rally on Monday: “I want to make America great again with President Trump. I want America great, but I want America good, and she can’t be good until we go back to God.”

Without mentioning Moore by name, Republican former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, an African-American who grew up in Alabama, issued a statement on Monday calling the special election "one of the most significant in Alabama’s history."

She urged Alabama voters to "reject bigotry, sexism, and intolerance."

A Fox News Poll conducted on Thursday and released on Monday put Jones ahead of Moore, with Jones potentially taking 50 percent of the vote and Moore 40 percent. Fox said 8 percent of voters were undecided and 2 percent supported another candidate.

14 PHOTOS
Women who have accused Roy Moore of sexual assault
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Women who have accused Roy Moore of sexual assault
Beverly Nelson (L) shows a school year book with attorney Gloria Allread during a news conference announcing new allegations of sexual misconduct against Alabama Republican congressional candidate Roy Moore, in New York, November 13, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Gloria Deason
Wendy Miller
Gloria Deason
Wendy Miller
Gloria Deason
Accuser Beverly Young Nelson, reacts while reading a statement claiming that Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore sexually harassed her when she was 16, in New York, U.S., November 13, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Attorney Gloria Allred stands with accuser Beverly Young Nelson, holding a sketch of herself made when she was 16 after reading a statement claiming that Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore sexually harassed her when she was 16, in New York, U.S., November 13, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Beverly Nelson (L) reacts as she reads a statement to reporters with attorney Gloria Allred during a news conference announcing new allegations of sexual misconduct against Alabama Republican congressional candidate Roy Moore, in New York, November 13, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 13: Beverly Young Nelson (L) speaks to the media with her lawyer Gloria Allred, at a news conference where she has accused Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore of sexually abusing her when she was 16 on November 13, 2017 in New York City. Moore, a controversial politician who recently won a run-off against Luther Strange for Alabama's Senate seat, is currently fighting accusations alleging that he pursued sexual relationships with teenagers -- including a 14-year-old -- when he was in his 30s. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
MEGYN KELLY TODAY -- Pictured: Tina Johnson and Megyn Kelly on Friday, November 17, 2017 -- (Photo by: Nathan Congleton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
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An average of recent polls by the RealClearPolitics website showed Moore ahead by a slight margin of 2.2 percentage points.

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 that his campaign is a chance to be on the "right side of history for the state of Alabama."

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

Moore's campaign has cast Jones as a liberal out of step with Alabama voters, seizing on the Democrat's support of abortion rights.

Moore, who was twice removed from the state Supreme Court for refusing to abide by federal law, may find a chilly reception in Washington if he wins. Republican leaders have said

Moore could face an ethics investigation if Alabama voters send him to the U.S. Senate.

Democrats have signaled they may use Moore’s election to tar Republicans as insensitive to women’s concerns at a time when allegations of sexual harassment have caused many prominent men working in politics, entertainment, media and business to lose their jobs.

(Additional reporting by Julia Harte in Washington; Writing by Caren Bohan; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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