Why Alabama’s Special Election Looms So Large

If Democrats can’t beat Roy Moore, it’s nearly impossible for them to win back the Senate next year—regardless of who they recruit.

Senate candidate Roy Moore speaks at a campaign rally Nov. 30 in Dora, Ala.
AP Photo/Brynn Anderson
Dec. 8, 2017, 5:06 p.m.

Back in 2010, when Republicans achieved a historic congressional rout, something unusual happened on the way to their House majority. They scored big in House races in the South and Midwest, as expected. But then their wave crested out West. Democrats swept competitive Senate races in California, Washington, and Colorado. They only lost one out of their 46 House seats on the West Coast that year—despite losing a record 63 seats elsewhere.

The lesson from that landslide: Waves aren’t equal everywhere.

So while the 2018 political landscape looks promising for Democrats, they will likely face similar limits to a potential landslide in the South, which would foreclose their slim possibility of retaking the Senate. If Republican Roy Moore hangs on to win Tuesday’s special Senate election in Alabama despite facing allegations of sexual misconduct, it would underscore just how toxic the Democratic Party label is down South. And Democrats shouldn’t have illusions that recruiting popular former Gov. Phil Bredesen to run for Senate in Tennessee will make the race closely competitive in the deep-red state.

These political crosscurrents—the anti-Trump wave is hitting affluent, cosmopolitan communities across the country, but the president remains resilient in small towns and rural enclaves—make it challenging to handicap individual races. All told, Democrats enjoy a sizable edge on the generic ballot (8 points, according to the RCP average), and have a better-than-even chance to retake the House. But those advantages will be amplified in bluer parts of the country and muted in Trump country.

To have any chance of winning back the Senate majority, Democrats would need to successfully defend five senators running in solidly Trump states, hold Al Franken’s unexpectedly vacant seat in Minnesota, pick up two swing-state seats in Nevada and Arizona—and then find their red-state unicorn. That’s a tall order. Moreover, Missouri and Indiana remain promising GOP pickup opportunities, even in a dismal year for Republicans.

Exploiting Moore’s ethical baggage is the easiest path to finding that third elusive seat. But absent that, Democrats will need everything to go their way—and still pray for an unexpected development in an unlikely place.

Tennessee may be the next-best opportunity for Democrats, but that’s not saying much. Even with Bredesen in the race, Tennessee is inhospitable territory for Democrats. The state gave Trump nearly the same share of the vote as ruby-red Alabama (61 percent). It refused to vote for home-state senator Al Gore in 2000, it was home to the only contested Senate race that didn’t flip to Democrats in 2006, and it has become even more Republican since Barack Obama’s election. Most importantly, Republicans are likely to avoid nominating a fringe candidate, with experienced officeholders like Rep. Marsha Blackburn and former Rep. Stephen Fincher vying for the nomination.

Bredesen is more likely to face the fate that bedeviled other high-profile, red-state Democrats in recent years. Democrats cheered—and many pundits overreacted—when moderate former Sen. Evan Bayh decided to run for his old seat in Indiana last year. He lost by a double-digit margin despite beginning the race with sky-high favorable ratings. An otherwise strong year for Democrats didn’t come close to pushing the well-known former Nebraska senator, Bob Kerrey, to victory in his 2012 comeback attempt. (He lost by 16 points.) Bredesen hasn’t been on a ballot in over 11 years, a lifetime in politics.

Indeed, the Democratic Party is so unpopular in Tennessee that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee didn’t even mention Bredesen’s recruitment in its week-in-review newsletter Friday.

It’s more plausible that a surprise resignation could unexpectedly open up a Senate seat than it is for Republicans to lose a Trump-friendly seat in the South (aside from the unusual Alabama race). Any gains that Democrats make in the region are more dependent on Republicans nominating a lousy candidate somewhere than they are Schumer managing to land top-notch recruits.

Here’s the reality: if Democrats flip Alabama’s Senate seat, which remains a definite possibility, a narrow path exists for a Democratic Senate majority in 2019. If not, the odds drop from slim to almost none.

If anything, the Alabama race should remind Americans how politically divided we are—and just how tough it is for a credible Democrat to break through in red-state America (and vice versa). The reality that America is divided along deepening tribal lines continues to heavily favor Mitch McConnell maintaining his leadership of the Senate in 2019, even if it’s by the narrowest of margins.

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