Doug Jones scraped a shocking win for Alabama Democrats, upsetting Republican congressional candidate, Roy Moore, in one of America’s deepest conservative states. The race was broadly considered a no-win scenario for Democrats until multiple women publicly accused Moore of inappropriate sexual conduct towards them when they were teenagers and he was in his 30’s. While Moore steadfastly denies these accusations, the allegations were a turning point in the election as Moore became embroiled in scandal but refused to step out of the race. The winning margin for Jones was slim – less than 2%. However, such a victory was almost unimaginable two months ago. Democrats had not seriously contested an Alabama Senate seat since 1996 when incumbent Democratic Senator, Howell Heflin, retired. So what does Jones’ victory mean for Republicans in one of the most consistently red states in the nation?
Moore’s grassroots campaign – fueled by the same populist wave as the Tea Party and Donald Trump – represented an anti-establishment revolt and faced a general distaste from Washington Republicans. Moore appealed to the worst tendencies of American Christian conservatism – birtherism, evolution-denial, and homophobia – which hold little truth but capture the emotional power of a cultural battleground. He appeared at campaign rallies dressed as a cowboy and pulled out a gun on stage. Ousted White House strategist and alt-right leader, Steve Bannon, called Moore part of a “populist, nationalist, and conservative movement” from a rally’s stage. At the urging of Mitch McConnell, President Trump endorsed Moore’s opponent, Luther Strange. Moore won the primary anyway – a clear signal that Trump could not control the very populism that elected him.
Doug Jones could not have been a more contrasting opponent. In 1963, Jones famously prosecuted two members of the Ku Klux Klan for the deadly bombing of the 16th baptist church in Birmingham. He launched an idealistic campaign with remarkably progressive pillars for Alabama, endorsing congressional Democrats’ attempts to save the Affordable Care Act and opposing the Hyde Amendment – which prohibits the use of federal funds for abortion. In an interview, Jones even went so far as to say, “Unfortunately, Jeff Sessions’s voice is what people think of when they imagine the typical Southern politician… There’s a lot of folks on the other side who might be concerned about the rollback of civil rights we could see under Jeff Sessions at the Justice Department.” By all conventional narratives, Doug Jones was the anti-Moore who never should have won a Senate election in Alabama, so how did he?
The obvious answer is the sexual assault allegations against Moore so gravely affected his public image that he was irredeemable in the eyes of voters, which is true. Yes, the scandals against Moore undeniably helped lead Jones to victory, but this narrative lacks sufficient analysis. The exit polls from the election tell a remarkable story. Only 7% of voters placed the sexual assault allegations as the single most important factor in determining their vote. A third of voters said it was one of several important factors, and another third said it played no factor at all. Moore did receive less support from women than President Trump one year ago. The allegations made a difference, but they were not the driving force behind Jones’ election.
As nearly every political pundit has noted, Jones won the black vote in unprecedented numbers. Polling analysis from the Associated Press shows that Jones won an estimated 96% of Black voters (who also gave a historic showing for a special election), and this was not by accident. Since before Moore’s scandal, the Democratic party’s strategy emphasized mobilizing black voters, which is no easy feat in a state with some of the worst voter suppression laws in the country. An Alabama Voter ID law passed in 2011 disproportionately bars black Americans from voting and is currently being fought in court by the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund. The showing of black voters is an excellent sign for the Democratic party, which relies heavily on this demographic in the deep south. However, this could mean something much different for southern Conservatives who have historically relied on broad white support and low black turnout.
The election results undoubtedly left Republicans stunned – it signals that the anger and anti-establishment ideas that propelled Trump to victory are not easily controlled. The Democratic victory also means that if conservatives wish to maintain the status quo in the deep south, they’ll have to start fighting harder for it. This leaves them with a choice: do they continue to weaponize white resentment of cultural change and social restructuring, or do they attempt to court the very demographics that they have historically alienated? Moving forward this could result in a hunkering down on old tactics – a renewed crusade against voter fraud that disenfranchises the groups responsible for yesterday’s results. Or Jones’ victory could grow into a reckoning for the inflammatory political tactics and rhetoric that southern conservatives have historically employed to garner white support. We only have to wait and see.