The next Senator from Alabama is Democrat Doug Jones. Who’d have thunk it?
There are a number of ways to “slice and dice” Jones’ victory in the Alabama special election. Gratifying as that win was–and it really, really was!–Roy Moore was a uniquely flawed candidate, and Alabama still came uncomfortably close to preferring a bigoted child molester and scofflaw to a principled and attractive Democrat.
On the other hand, a Democrat won a statewide race in Alabama–by several metrics, the Reddest state in the country.
There were dozens of excellent columns and opinion pieces yesterday morning parsing the implications of Jones’ victory. One of those, a column by David Von Drehle in the Washington Post, included a couple of important observations. Von Drehle noted that Jones had run a campaign that honored the old adage “When your opponent is digging his own grave, don’t grab the shovel.”
What really caught my eye, however, was this:
The Jones victory is about a rising tide of Americans who won’t swallow the bilge President Trump is pushing. Make no mistake: If Trump and his would-be Pygmalion, Stephen K. Bannon, can’t sell their mix of cultural resentment and paranoia in Alabama, they will be hard-pressed to sell it anywhere.
In my opinion, that is one of two important “take aways” from Tuesday’s election.
Yes, Moore was an unusually revolting candidate, even for today’s GOP. Yes, a majority of white voters–primarily but not exclusively rural–stuck with him anyway. (Had it not been for the African-American voters who turned out despite the numerous voter suppression tactics aimed at keeping them home, Roy Moore would be a United States Senator.)
But this is Alabama, and context is important. Although Donald Trump won Alabama by 28 points, exit polling showed his favorable rating at 47%–and his unfavorable rating at 48%. Radio ads for Moore in the final days of the campaign were unabashedly racist and anti-Semitic (Jones and George Soros are trying to start a race war…)–were appeals to what Von Drehle politely calls “cultural resentment.” Yet even in dark-red Alabama, where the urban/rural divide is deep and racism institutionalized, Trump, Bannon and the politics of white nationalism weren’t enough to drag Moore across the finish line.
So, “take away” number one: hatred as a political strategy has a limited shelf life.
However, in my opinion, take away number two is the most important. This election reaffirmed a reality to which all politicians give lip service, but too few make the focus of their campaign efforts: turnout is critical.
Republicans haven’t won elections by winning the hearts and minds of voters; they’ve won by suppressing Democratic turnout–by gerrymandering, passing ridiculous Voter ID laws, limiting polling places and hours, and similar tactics. (In Alabama, after passing a stringent Voter ID law necessitating trips to the state’s BMV branches, they closed the branches in black neighborhoods.) Those tactics lead voters to believe the results of elections are foreordained–a conclusion that further suppresses the vote.
What I read over and over as I followed the Jones-Moore contest was that Democrats were excited–if astonished– because they saw that winning was possible. My vote could actually count!! That excitement prompted previously apathetic Democrats to turn out; it also prompted efforts by the NAACP and other organizations to overcome the structural barriers erected to discourage African-American participation.
Unusually high Democratic turnout can overcome gerrymandering in districts drawn to be safe for Republicans, because those district lines are based on turnout estimates and those turnout estimates are based upon prior voting patterns.
Of course, it helps a lot when non-crazy reliable Republican voters are faced with a choice between a whack-job child molester and a good guy…Even in Alabama.