Other than the small matter of putting into play the Republican Senate majority for the first time this year, what did Democrat Doug Jones’s victory in Alabama mean for next year’s midterm elections? Many political analysts seem to approach this question in a binary fashion. Some think that President Trump’s low approval ratings and the dismal state of the party make this race an augury, like Republican Scott Brown’s win in the 2010 Massachusetts special election that preceded the Democrats’ disastrous midterm election later that year. The alternative explanation is that the election was a referendum on Roy Moore. The two explanations are often seen as mutually exclusive.
To my mind, Tuesday’s results were a combination of the two, though less about Trump and more about the badly tarnished Moore. But this does not mean that the Republicans’ problems next year are not enormous. The odds of them losing the House are now at least 50-50 and the Senate is in real doubt.
But keep in mind that Moore’s political shortcomings were of biblical proportions. In American history, how many state Supreme Court justices have been removed from office or suspended? How many chief justices? How many have had it happen twice? My brief search couldn’t come up with many, but it can’t possibly be more than a handful. It wasn’t an accident that he had lost two gubernatorial primaries in the state. Roy Moore was toxic before we even learned of allegations that in his 30s he had an unhealthy interest in teenage girls, something that transmogrified him from toxic to radioactive.
Even with all of Trump’s problems and the challenges facing the Republicans, if the GOP nominee in Alabama had been appointed incumbent Luther Strange or any member of the state’s congressional delegation or even Joe or Jane Generic Republican, the party would have held onto the seat easily. Alabama is so conservative and Republican that only one of the most flawed Senate nominees in history could put the race into play. Anyone who was shocked by the outcome should review the change in poll ratings. On Oct. 27, The Cook Political Report moved the race from Solid to Lean Republican. The underage-girl scandal broke on Nov. 9, and the rating was shifted into the Toss Up column on Nov. 14. Nobody “called” the race, but the trend line was clear.
Talking about Moore’s shortcomings should not diminish the importance of Doug Jones being a very good candidate and turning in a strong performance, as he showed in his impressive victory speech. Nor should it shortchange the effectiveness of his campaign. For all of Moore’s failings, Democrats needed everything to go precisely right, and for once, it did.
Jones’s campaign started from scratch. The Alabama Democratic Party organization barely exists, organized labor is weak in the state, and many key African-American political organizations are in disarray. These factors created a particularly challenging situation for Jones. Unlike in most Senate races, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee offered as much support as it could without “nationalizing” the race, allowing Jones to run unencumbered by the national party, which is held in low regard in the state. Democrats can take heart that a strong turnout among African-Americans was key and that certain segments of women voters also played a critical role in the outcome.
It also took flawless performances by Giles Perkins, Doug Turner, and Tom Rossmeissl inside the campaign; media consultant Joe Trippi, who did the ads; Paul Maslin and Rick Sklarz from the Los Angeles-based Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates, who conducted polling for Jones; and Zac McCrary from the Montgomery-based firm of Anzalone Liszt Grove Research who polled for the DSCC.
As legendary pollster Peter Hart put it, “The distance the voters traveled to get from Moore to Jones was longer than the road to Damascus. What is amazing is not what it tells us about Alabama, but it helps remind us the power of special elections. They are a small window into the year ahead—1969 told us about 1970; 2010 told us about 2010; and 2017 is telling us about 2018.”
Just a few months ago, the idea of Democrats regaining a Senate majority was mainly theoretical. Democrats, who are outnumbered in the Senate 52-48, needed a three-seat net gain to win a majority. They needed to defend 25 of their own seats next year (now 26 with a special Minnesota special election in November to replace Al Franken). Remember that 10 of those 25 Democratic seats are in states that Trump won, and five are in states that he carried by 19 or more points. They also needed to capture three of the eight seats that Republicans are defending. That added up to a very steep climb.
With Democrats picking up the Alabama seat, they need a net gain of two seats instead of three. They have two open-seat opportunities that they didn’t have three months ago: one in Arizona, where Republican Jeff Flake is retiring, and the other in Tennessee, where Republican Bob Corker is also retiring. The decision by former two-term Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen to run for the seat in the Volunteer State has Democratic hopes running especially high there. The Democrats also like their chances against the Republican incumbent in Nevada, Dean Heller.
The bottom line: The Democrats have to win two of those three races while holding all of their own seats. If they lose one of their own, they would need to sweep all three. It’s a narrow path to a majority, and the odds are less than 50-50 even with a strong tailwind. But it’s a discernible path nonetheless, which is more than they could hope for as recently as last summer.