Ben Roback is a Senior Account Executive at Cicero Group and a member of the US Embassy’s Young Leaders UK programme.
For the first time in 25 years, the State of Alabama has sent a Democrat to the Senate. It was a staggering election result in a campaign that was far from normal.
The conclusion of such a dark and divisive political race meant Donald Trump’s endorsed picks lost twice in Alabama, putting another big dent into the populist movement Republicans hoped would propel Ed Gillespie into the Virginia governor’s mansion and Roy Moore to the Senate.
Despite endorsements from the President, the populist hurricane that worked so well in 2016 petered out into a light breeze in Alabama, unable to stop Democrat Doug Jones.
How did a Democrat win in deep-red Alabama?
Roy Moore was the runaway favourite to win the seat vacated when Jeff Sessions was appointed Attorney General. Putting a Senate seat in play that might become winnable for the Democrats would not have been part of Trump’s calculation.
The overwhelming narrative in the race surrounded Roy Moore’s deficiencies and not Doug Jones’ strengths. Moore had fought his campaign in the face of a series of allegations of sexual harassment, resulting in calls from Washington and Republican Party institutions for him to stand down.
He refused, and when polls made it clear the race was too close to call, those Republican institutions reinstated their funding and the President ramped up his public endorsements.
With 100 per cent of precincts reporting their results, Doug Jones had won 49.9 per cent of the vote compared to Moore’s 48.4 per cent. The remainder of votes (1.7 per cent) went to write-in candidates, following a strategy that establishment Republicans had considered if accusations against Moore were proven but he refused to withdraw from the race.
Early data released showed the African American vote turned out on a scale rarely seen since President Obama’s election wins in 2008 and 2012, while those under the age of 44 overwhelmingly voted for Jones.
For Trump, the implications matter on three fronts.
2018 elections and re-taking the Senate
Before Alabama, Democrats needed to pick up three seats to take back the majority from the Republicans. With Doug Jones, they only need to pick up two more. The Democratic map to re-taking the Senate never ran through Alabama in the past, so this win is a huge bonus.
Now, they will consider any seat in the country winnable with the right strategy and resources. Wins in Alabama and Virginia have given the opposition the belief that Republicans can be beaten by pitching races as a referendum on the President.
For Republicans, there is real cause for concern. Trump won Alabama by nearly 20 points in the 2016 election, but Alabamians rejected the candidates he endorsed twice (Luther Strange in the primary and then Moore in the general). Democrats will now favour its chances of going on the offensive in states like Arizona (Jeff Flake is resigning), Tennessee (Bob Corker is resigning), and Nevada (Dean Heller is facing a tough pro-Trump primary challenge).
The election map remains difficult for the Democrats – ten Democrats are running in states that voted for Trump in the general election – but the political environment is ripe for opposition and fundraising.
Getting things done with a razor-thin majority
While the Republican majority has been far from comfortable for the president and Mitch McConnell in their attempts to pass legislation, the task now becomes even harder. The Republicans have tried to speed through their tax reform plans with one eye on the Alabama race, with Jones a presumed hard ‘no’ vote.
Losing either the House or Senate would represent a major barrier for the President’s legislative agenda. It would mean no bills could be passed through the reconciliation process, while Democrats would have the power to veto rump’s nominees which currently only require a simple majority for approval. His picks for Cabinet and other positions in the executive branch would require Democratic support; that appears improbable if not impossible.
A dent in the populist movement that propelled the President to power
Donald Trump’s election victory was undoubtedly impressive, irrespective of your political stripe. But the techniques used to seize the White House have been failing consistently in elections since.
The approach taken by Steve Bannon and his Breitbart rage machine failed in New Jersey, Virginia and now Alabama. Their scorched earth approach, and commitment to destroying the establishment from within, delivered the White House but has born little fruit since.
More worryingly for the Republican leadership, it may have captured the imagination of grass roots Republicans who vote in primary elections for their candidates but whose views do not extend to the general public. That is a recipe for increasingly right-wing candidates like Moore being selected as the Republican candidate, but then being rejected once the electorate is more than just the hardcore Republican base.
Democrats will be toasting another victory in a race many will be in a rapid hurry to forget. Another campaign about personalities and not ideology, bereft of time spent talking about political visions or local ideas. Alabama has its new Senator and for the Democrats another weapon in the fight against Trump.
Special elections are too often extrapolated for wider implications, when the outcome was determined by local factors or extreme circumstances like the wave of allegations against Moore. Looking ahead to 2018, Democrats will increasingly talk up their chances of re-taking the House and Senate. But the party remains divided on key policy platforms like single-payer healthcare, and without a leader to fill the void left by Hillary Clinton and President Obama.
Democrats are defending three times as many seats as Republicans in 2018, but optimism ahead of next November is clearly on the rise.