GALLANT, United States (REUTERS) - Polls closed on Tuesday (Dec 12) in a bitter U.S. Senate race in Alabama with high stakes for President Donald Trump, who has endorsed fellow Republican Roy Moore despite allegations against the candidate of sexual misconduct towards teenagers.
Moore, 70, a former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice, is battling former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, 63, who hopes to pull off an upset victory in the deeply conservative Southern state.
There were only scattered early returns, and television networks said it was too soon to call the outcome, with vote counting expected to take several hours.
The race will test Trump's political clout after nearly a year in office, with his approval ratings at historically low levels.
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 US Senate, possibly making it harder for Trump to advance his policy agenda.
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 signalled 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.
Twenty-nine per cent said they voted to express support for Trump, and 20 per cent 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 per cent 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 per cent of registered voters would participate, lower than the 64 per cent 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. 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.
Most opinion polls showed Moore ahead, but some gave the edge to Jones - a sign of the difficulty of forecasting a special election being held a few weeks before Christmas.
No Democrat has held a US 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.