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Alabama After-Action Review

Elections rely on money, message and mobilization

Doug Jones’ slim victory in the Alabama Senate race last night was a gigantic event in American politics, but it remains to be seen whether it, like the Virginia election in November, was a genuine harbinger of an anti-Trump, Republican-rejecting mid-term course correction. Trump naturally was quick to diminish the significance of Jones’ astonishing victory in a state he won by nearly 30 points just 13 months ago. Predicting Jones’ tenure in the seat will not last beyond the 2020 election, the President commented, “It never ends!” Don’t we know it.

Democrats have every reason to be exultant by the outcome, but there are important lessons for party activists as we gear up for the 2018 congressional races. No one should be under the misimpression that the Alabama (or Virginia) results give license to Democrats to behave like, well, Democrats, chasing every sparkling light and divisive, identity-based cause and demanding absolute ideological fealty to “progressive” axioms. Republicans are unlikely to reliably provide a Bible-thumping molester as their candidate of choice, so the district-by-district, state-by-state battles next year will not necessarily provide the same kinds of opportunities that Roy Moore presented.

  • In an election decided by about 1.5%, only 35% of Alabamans voted despite a well-publicized recognition this would be a close and consequential contest. Some of the low turnout, common in special and off-year elections, was doubtless attributable to Republicans who (for whatever reason) voted with their feet and stayed home; GOP turnout in many key counties was low. But 2018 presents a challenge for Democrats who must sustain the anger and energy that propelled the Alabama and Virginia victories to generate atypical off-year turnout; whether they can, given the inevitability of disappointments over the next year (that may leave base groups indifferent to the party) will be crucial to seizing the House and/or majority.
  • Democrats did much better among white suburbanites, college educated and white women than they did in 2016, but those changes could prove ephemeral against candidates less toxic than Moore. Even with his hair-raising record of misconduct, Moore still won white women by 29 points last night.
  • Black turnout (along with other members of the Democratic coalition) will be crucial to victory in 2018 and 2020. Although black voters were faulted for not turning out sufficiently in the key Mid-Western states whose loss cost Clinton victory in 2016, they substantially outperformed white voters in Alabama; over 70% of black voters cast ballots, a constituency Jones won by 92 points. Will black voters be as engaged nationally in 2018? Will Hispanics be, if Democrats are not perceived as pushing the DREAM Act as hard as they can in budget negotiations?
  • Democrats showed some strategic discipline, overlooking Jones’ moderate views on some topics. Will they also forgive some moderate votes he will assuredly cast in the Senate? While Jones was upfront, and risked real dangers, in his support of abortion rights, he did not pledge fealty to every special interest in the Democratic catechism. He and others understood that if you make unreasonable demands of Dixie Ds, you get Dixie Rs. DNC Chair Tom Perez caught criticism earlier in the year when he asserted the party would reject any anti-abortion candidate (he was quickly rebuked by Nancy Pelosi and others). Democrats must realize that the most crucial (i.e., the ones that determine majorities) elections are won in the middle, and must accept candidates whose views actually reflect, rather than confront, their constituents. This fall in Alabama, the activist base showed signs of behaving like politicos instead of simply like protestors.
  • Electorally, Alabama shows any seat can be in play (well, there’s always Utah) with the right candidate and the right political atmosphere. Howard Dean was correct: you need to fight everywhere to win somewhere. As was the case in the 1974, 1994 and 2010 wave elections, you can win seats you never thought were in play.
  • At the same time, no one should come to the conclusion that the conservative political movement has suffered any type of deep organizational setback. The underlying machinery of the hard Right remains quite strong, although encumbered by the divisive primary challenges promised by Steve Bannon and others. The conservative infrastructure – organization, finance, media – are deeply rooted featured of three generations of American politics, and it remains largely unaffected by Moore’s defeat. Absent the multiple morals charges and the abandonment by key GOP allies like Sen. Richard Shelby, Roy Moore, in all his holy roller, gun waving, Scripture spouting goofiness, would be heading to the United States Senate (as would virtually any other Alabama Republican).
  • Among the winners, Sen. Cory Booker, who came into the state touting his own roots in sweet home Alabama and seemingly demonstrated an impressive ability to rally black voters to show up and vote. National Democrats are unlikely to ignore his success (along with John Lewis and Barack Obama, neither of whom are looking at 2020 in quite the same was as Booker).
  • Potential winners: Susan Collins and Jeff Flake. With the GOP’s Senate majority now at 2 (since a tie means VP Pence gives Republicans a victory), Collins and Flake have enormous leverage to press the demands they made during the Senate vote on the tax bill, neither of which Mitch McConnell has any intention of keeping. Now we will see whether these two “mavericks” are, as they say here in Santa Fe, all hat and no cattle. House Democrats used to say that Collins was always there when we didn’t need her. Will she insist McConnell’s promises be kept, or fold like a cheap suitcase?

In the end, the Jones victory proved Nancy Pelosi’s longstanding observation that adherence to the 3 M’s wins elections, especially under difficult circumstances: money is crucial, and Jones outspent Moore 6-1 on television; message discipline is key: stick to core issues that resonate with the target electorate, like jobs and economic opportunity; and mobilization: mailings and TV/radio are nice, but organize an army of foot soldiers, as did Jones whose supporters knocked on over 300,000 doors. Good lessons, great campaign, and an upbeat ending to a year of disorienting political chaos.

John Lawrence, a visiting professor at the University of California Washington Center, worked for 38 years in the House of Representatives, the last 8 as chief of staff to Speaker/Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. This post was originally published at John’s blog, Domeocracy. His forthcoming book, “The Class of ‘74: Congress After Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship” (Johns Hopkins University Press) is now available for pre-order.

John Lawrence

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