Doug Jones is the first Democratic senator elected from Alabama in 25 years primarily because he faced one of the worst possible Republican opponents in Roy Moore—a candidate accused of sexual molestation who barely showed up on the campaign trail in the final weeks of the race. Even so, his path to the historic upset will be a guidebook for Democrats as they seek to win back control of the House and now, potentially, the Senate in 2018.
Jones enjoyed vibrant support from the party’s African-American base, persuaded just enough suburban voters outside of the state’s big cities of Birmingham, Huntsville, and Mobile to cross party lines, and benefited from lackluster Republican turnout throughout the state. The formula for Democrats across the country will be similar: rally the anti-Trump base, rock the suburbs, and hope enough Republicans remain disillusioned with the party in the chaotic Trump era.
African-Americans made up 29 percent of the electorate in the Alabama Senate election—significantly more than both campaigns expected—and they gave Jones 96 percent of their votes. Jones nearly fought Moore to a draw in the suburbs, winning 47 percent of the vote in these typically conservative areas. Women backed Jones by a 16-point margin, accounting for a stunning 30-point gender gap. And self-identified Republicans made up only 43 percent of the vote, suggesting that many rank-and-file GOP voters simply stayed home instead of casting a vote for the tarnished candidate.
Democrats elsewhere won’t have the good fortune to face GOP candidates as damaged as Roy Moore, but they’ll be running in friendlier territory than ruby-red Alabama as they fight to retake control of Congress. The base-plus-suburbs coalition propelled Ralph Northam to a decisive win in last month’s Virginia gubernatorial race and Phil Murphy to a landslide victory in New Jersey, and it has allowed Democrats to pick off numerous state legislative seats in unlikely places.
The practical implication of Jones’s stunner is that Democrats now have a plausible, if challenging, path to a Senate majority—a prospect that seemed impossible even in the most favorable circumstances several months ago. It would require Democrats to defend a roster of vulnerable red-state seats while ousting Sen. Dean Heller in swing-state Nevada and picking up an open seat in GOP-leaning Arizona.
Widespread Republican disillusionment threatens to become a crippling blow to GOP competitiveness in next year’s midterm elections. The party could survive a supercharged Democratic base and even sustain further losses among suburbanites. After all, Trump himself faced setbacks on those fronts. But he overcame them thanks to sky-high turnout by his base of working-class whites in last year’s presidential election.
The biggest alarm for Republicans is that Trump’s base isn’t coming out to vote for GOP candidates, whether they’re traditional types like Ed Gillespie in Virginia or Trump-like renegades like Moore in Alabama. Trump’s last-minute activism on behalf of Moore made a minimal impact in the Alabama outcome, but it made him complicit in the GOP’s loss and cost him valuable credibility with his base.
The embarrassing debacle in Alabama will only intensify the civil war between establishment leaders like Mitch McConnell (whose ability to shape races is limited by his widespread unpopularity) and opportunistic demagogues like Steve Bannon, who claim to represent the party’s populist grassroots.
McConnell’s wing of the party quickly tried to use the Alabama defeat as a reason to purge Bannon and his allies from the party. “His first candidate is an alleged child molester who lost the reddest state in the union, so who wants to be the second?” said Josh Holmes, a former McConnell chief of staff and outspoken Bannon critic. Bannon, whose poor track record belies his reputation as a political Svengali, is showing no signs of backing down. He used his Breitbart platform to blame establishment Republicans for sabotaging Jones, refusing to accept any responsibility for the loss.
The internal battles within the GOP erupted publicly in Alabama: The Republican National Committee belatedly endorsed Moore, while the National Republican Senatorial Committee hinted at expelling him if he were elected. Trump traveled to the Florida panhandle to rally support for Moore, while Alabama’s Republican senior senator, Richard Shelby, pointedly refused to back his party’s nominee during a national television appearance. GOP Gov. Kay Ivey ignored desperate pleas from Washington to cut ties to Moore and come up with a viable backup plan.
All the ingredients are in place for an epic political wave to wash many Republicans out of office in 2018. The party desperately needs to get its act together to mitigate the worst possible outcomes. But as the GOP’s setback in Alabama showed, the epic dysfunction within the Republican Party is a feature—not a fluke—of Trump-era politics.