Democrat Doug Jones’ victory in yesterday’s special election surprised much of the political world, and it has created ripples that will be felt until Election Day in 2018. But, as is often the tendency with upsets, “pundits” were quick to hit cable news channels to make apocalyptic predications about what it all means. This is not to suggest that there aren’t major implications in Jones’ win, but suggestions that Republicans’ house has burned to the ground are overstated.
The most important thing to appreciate is what a truly flawed candidate Republican Roy Moore is. Even before the allegations of sexual misconduct came to dominate the campaign, Moore’s extreme positions on issues ranging from homosexuality to the separation of church and state turned off some Republican voters and worried Senate Republicans, who were concerned that Moore would be a negative distraction. After The Washington Post broke the story about the women who accused Moore of sexual impropriety when they were in their teens, Moore became a train wreck of a candidate whose only hope for victory was the strongly Republican nature of the state.
In truth, just about any other Republican would have won this race. Certainly, Luther Strange, who had been appointed to the seat and who lost the GOP run-off to Moore, would have easily defeated Jones, as would have a random state legislator or mayor. The general election would have been a low-turnout affair that would have attracted little national attention, or the kind of resources that Jones would have needed to be competitive.
How Did Jones Win?
First, Jones ran a solid and well-executed campaign that did everything it needed to do from sharp television ads to identifying their voters and getting them to the polls, which was especially important in a special election in which this was the only race on the ballot. As terrible a candidate as Moore was, Jones proved to be a very solid one who would have likely over-performed other Democrats, but would have probably fallen short in the absence of the scandal. Ultimately, of course, it was voters that handed Jones his 49.9-percent victory over Moore, who took 48.4 percent.
The Secretary of State had predicted that turnout would be 25 percent, and then doubled that in the days before the election. Ultimately, nearly 1.3 ballots were cast.
As has been evident in the special congressional elections and the Virginia Governor’s race this year, Democrats are going to the polls in large numbers, particularly in urban and suburban counties. As a result, Democratic candidates are far exceeding the percentage of the vote that a Democratic candidate usually gets. Alabama was no exception, as the table below indicates. (hat tip: NBC News First Read)
Jefferson County (Birmingham)
Madison County (Hunstville)
Shelby County (Birmingham suburbs)
At the same time, there is evidence that turnout is some more rural Republican counties was down, which hurt Moore.
African American Voters
According to the exit poll, African-American voters made up 29 percent of the electorate and gave Jones 96 percent of their vote. The turnout exceeded the Jones’ campaign’s most optimistic scenario by two points, and supported their candidate by a slightly higher percentage than they anticipated.
Women made up 51 percent of the electorate and supported Jones with 57 percent. Moore took 63 percent among white women, but Jones got 98 percent among African-American women, 56 percent among women with children under 18 years of age at home and 55 percent among single women.
The Jones campaign should probably send U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby a fruit basket for letting it be known that he would write-in another Republican rather than vote for Moore. Jones used footage of Shelby’s remarks in a TV ad. The result was that write-ins accounted for 1.7 percent of the vote, which is considered a very high percentage in any race; it was under 1 percent in the 2016 presidential race and that was considered unusually high. These 22,819 write-in votes are more than the 20,715 votes that separated Jones and Moore.
Moore’s Rose Garden
Once he defeated Strange in the run-off, Moore clearly intended to run a Rose Garden strategy with few public appearances and no debates. Even with all the evidence that the race was closing, the strategy never changed. In fact, Moore didn’t have any public events the weekend before Election Day. In addition, Moore proved to be a weak fundraiser; Jones likely outspent him by a 10-1 margin. His TV ads were few and aimed directly at his base with a narrow message. In short, Moore ran a terrible campaign.
What About 2018?
Jones won’t be on the ballot in 2018, but his victory does have some implications for the 34 Senate races will up next November. Moore’s loss means that the Senate is now 51 Republicans and 49 Democrats. As such, Democrats only need a net gain of two seats to win the majority, as opposed to three seats before Jones’ election. Until this point, it had been mathematically impossible for Democrats to even compete for the majority. With Jones’ victory and former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen’s announcement last week that he will run for the open Senate seat in Tennessee, Democrats are now in a position to vie for the majority. It remains an uphill battle, as they must hold all 26 of the seats they are defending and pick up two Republican-held seats. Still, it appears that they will benefit from a political environment that will provide a strong wind at their backs so the talk that the majority is in play will only get louder.
Finally, we’ll take a bit of a victory lap for ignoring the conventional wisdom that there was no way the voters of Alabama would ever send a Democrat to the U.S. Senate despite how flawed Moore proved to be. The race started off in the Solid Republican, but moved to Likely Republican on October 6, which was just after the run-off. On October 27, it moved to Lean Republican. The scandal broke on November 9, and we put the race in the Toss Up column on November 14.
Image: AP Photo/John Bazemore