Last night Roy Moore, the anti-gay, pro-slavery, alleged pedophiliac former chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court lost a layup of a special election for the U.S. Senate to Doug Jones, a Democratic former federal prosecutor, in a state that went for Donald Trump by nearly 30 points last year and which hasn’t voted for a Democrat to the Senate in 25 years. Jones did this in spite of a last minute surge of help from Donald Trump and the Republican National Committee, as well as an inherent advantage from Alabama’s multi-faceted campaign of voting restrictions aimed at stopping black Democrats from exercising their right to vote.
Moore’s loss is undoubtedly a huge blow to the Republicans’ ego, but what does it actually mean for the rest of us? In short, passing Trump’s agenda in the Senate just got a lot harder, and there’s even more proof that Democratic victories in the future will be found in people of color and young people — not in peeling off moderate Republican votes.
The most significant and immediate result of the race is that the Republicans will now have one less vote in the Senate, although they’ll maintain a slight 51-49 edge, and have Vice President Mike Pence when a tie needs to be broken. But the Senate Republican caucus hasn’t always stuck together this year; if Jones had been in the Senate for the votes to confirm Betsy Devos as Secretary of Education, or for the vote to allow credit card companies to force mandatory arbitration on their consumers, then neither of those votes would have happened. Moving forward, this means that the few Republicans left in the Senate (like Sen. Susan Collins of Maine) who claim to be moderates will ostensibly be able to wield more power in crafting legislation, at least before they express deep concern about it and then ultimately vote for it anyway.
Passing Trump’s agenda in the Senate just got a lot harder.
So as to not take any chances, Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky will likely try to ram through a revised version of the horrific tax bill his caucus passed last week before Jones has a chance to take his seat. McConnell said earlier on Tuesday that the new senator isn’t going to be seated until after the New Year, which means that they have around three weeks to pass it before Jones takes office. Jones, who will serve in the seat formerly held by now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions through 2020, will also help the Democrats weather a storm next year when they’re defending 25 Senate seats, nine of which are in states that Trump won last year. (Just one state won by Clinton has a Republican up for re-election next year, Nevada.)
It’s impossible, however, to extrapolate the circumstances in Alabama last night to anywhere else or any other time, including 2018. Moore wasn’t very well-liked by Alabamans even before it came out that he had a well-documented history of harassing and dating high schoolers; in 2012, the same year Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama by 22 points in the presidential election in Alabama, Moore barely won his seat on the Alabama Supreme Court. While Democrats no doubt have to be feeling good about their chances next year because of this and last month’s triumphs in the Virginia gubernatorial and legislative elections, it’s a safe bet that they won’t have the advantage of running against an incoherent pedophile in the vast majority of future races.
What we can glean from this, though, are two lessons that indicate in which direction the Democrats should be moving in the future. The first is that Jones ran on a platform that’s solidly in line with the mainstream Democratic Party — for starters, he’s pro-choice and opposes the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding from abortions — and he won, in Alabama. This is a marked departure from the Democrats who have won in the South in recent years, like Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, who emphasized being pro-life when he ran in 2015, or Sens. Bill Nelson of Florida, Mark Warner of Virginia, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who are all considered among the most conservative members of the caucus.
Jones can’t be mistaken for a member of the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party; he refused to endorse Medicare for All during the campaign, for example, and once he takes office he could very well abandon his better positions. But for now, what matters is that the platform Jones ran on was by far the most progressive we’ve seen from a viable Democratic candidate in the South in quite some time, and he managed to win without abandoning reproductive rights, LGBT rights, the environment, or any number of other progressive issues. Contrary to popular belief, the Democrats don’t need to run center-right small business owners in order to win in the South; they just have to care about and invest in the races happening there.
Jones ran on by far the most progressive platform we’ve seen from a viable Democratic candidate in the South in quite some time.
The second lesson is that the anti-Moore coalition was one whose biggest support came from black people. Despite Moore being an actual pedophile, Jones — who emphasized during the campaign his prosecution of the Klan members behind the 1961 Birmingham bombing — managed to win just 30 percent of the white vote according to the Washington Post exit poll, and that was considered good by recent standards. Jones did, however, win 96 percent of black voters, including 98 percent of black women. And as election observer Daniel Nichanian noted of many of Alabama’s majority-black counties, turnout was high compared to the last presidential election, not to mention in an off-year special election two weeks before Christmas.
How did Jones win? *12* counties with highest turnout relative to 2016 all went for Jones! 10 of them are majority African-American. (Updated with 100% in.) pic.twitter.com/4jmCxNbf2n— Taniel (@Taniel) December 13, 2017
One reason for this shift might be that thousands of black voters who had served non-violent felony sentences were able to cast a ballot for the first time because their voting rights were restored this year; not coincidentally, Virginia also rolled back similar restrictions last year. As 33-year old Nuris Bigelow, who regained her right to vote this year, told ThinkProgress after casting her ballot: “My vote counts. One more makes a difference.” Given how many people are disenfranchised all across the country, even after they’re served their time — in the swing state of Florida, for example, 23 percent of the black population is disenfranchised — this is one area that Democrats would do well to focus on in order to demonstrate a commitment to civil rights and democracy. And given that perhaps no group suffered more from the Great Recession than black people, Democrats could do worse than to run on progressive economic policies that help grow the wealth of people of color and the poor.
Given that historically bad candidates likely won’t be the norm in races moving forward, the Democrats need to work on turning out their base, and not rely on Republicans disgusted by Moore or Trump. It’s clear that the path for Democrats long-term is towards social and economic justice, even in historically conservative regions like the South; whether the national party is smart enough to recognize the opportunity and take it, however, remains to be seen.