Alabama Senate race winner Doug Jones a civil rights champion

Doug Jones, a Democratic former prosecutor who mounted a seemingly quixotic Senate campaign in the face of Republican dominance, defeated his scandal-scarred opponent, Roy Moore, after a brutal campaign. PHOTO: REUTERS

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (AFP, NYTimes) - Doug Jones, the Democrat who pulled off a stunning upset victory in Alabama's nail-biter Senate contest on Tuesday, is considered a champion for civil rights in a state that played a seminal role in the 1960s movement.

Jones, 63, had never run for office before throwing his hat into the ring in Alabama - and as a believer in climate change and abortion rights was initially given no chance in the solidly Republican state, where President Donald Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton by 28 points.

In defeating the Republican Roy Moore - whose campaign was dogged by claims of sexual misconduct - Jones becomes the first Democrat since 1992 to carry a Senate race in Alabama, handing a major boost to the beleaguered US opposition party.

The upset delivered an unimagined victory for Democrats and shaved Republicans' unstable Senate majority to a single seat.

Jones' victory could have drastic consequences on the national level, snarling Republicans' legislative agenda in Washington and opening, for the first time, a realistic but still difficult path for Democrats to capture the Senate next year.

It amounted to a stinging snub of President Donald Trump, who broke with much of his party and fully embraced Moore's candidacy, seeking to rally support for him in the closing days of the campaign.

Jones vowed to pursue traditional Democratic policy aims, in areas such as education and healthcare, but also pledged to cross party lines in Washington and partner with Sen. Richard Shelby, the long-tenured Alabama Republican, to defend the state's interests.

The former US attorney earned his reputation with the successful prosecution of two members of the Ku Klux Klan for a 1963 dynamite attack on a black church in Birmingham, Alabama.

The infamous Sunday morning bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, which left four young girls dead, helped galvanise support for the civil rights movement and came just months after Martin Luther King Jr was arrested for organising non-violent protests against racial segregation in Birmingham.

Jones was a prosecutor in a pair of cases brought nearly 40 years later which led to the conviction of two of the white supremacists behind the attack.

Bobby Frank Cherry and Thomas Blanton were sentenced to life in prison for their roles in the September 15, 1963 church bombing.

"Justice may have been delayed, but it was certainly not denied," Jones said of the case, which he called "the most tarnishing crime in Alabama in the 20th century."

While Jones was plainly the underdog at the outset of the race to succeed Jeff Sessions, who left his Senate seat vacant when appointed Trump's Attorney-General, his Republican rival was a polarising figure in Alabama.

Moore was forced to step down twice from the state supreme court, the second time for disobedience to the US Supreme Court's ruling legalising gay marriage.

And Jones' electoral fortunes changed dramatically when The Washington Post reported that Moore had allegedly preyed on teenage girls when he was a district attorney in his 30s - allegations denied by the now 70-year-old former judge.

Democratic donors from around the country began pouring money into the race, buying television advertisements for Jones and seeking to mobilise African-American voters, who make up about a quarter of the electorate in the state.

Former vice-president Joe Biden made an appearance at a Jones rally in in Birmingham in October and former president Barack Obama pitched in with a robo-call for voters.

"This one's serious. You can't sit it out," Obama said.

Born in Fairfield, Alabama, the son of a steelworker, Jones attended high school when the state was in the midst of court-ordered desegregation of its high schools.

He became an assistant US attorney in Birmingham in 1980 and was named US attorney for the northern district of Alabama in 1997 by former president Bill Clinton.

Jones and his wife, Louise, have three children and two grandchildren.

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