With Doug Jones’ Senate special election victory Tuesday, Democrats chipped away at the GOP’s already slim Senate majority and scored a huge psychological victory leading up to the 2018 midterm elections.
And they have the heart of Dixie — of all places — to thank for it.
Alabama had not elected a Democrat to the Senate in 25 years before Jones’ shocking come-from-behind victory against the former state Supreme Court justice Roy Moore.
For some congressional Republicans, Jones’ narrow victory may be an answered prayer. It spares them the embarrassment and political fallout of having to call for an ethics investigation of their newest member, who faces allegations that he sexually abused several teenagers when in his 30s.
“Decency wins,” tweeted Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who had written a check to Jones’ campaign.
Even absent the sexual misconduct allegations, there would have been plenty in Moore’s background and fundamentalist Christian ideology for Democrats use in attacks against Republicans nationwide. And Moore would have been a wildcard in Senate votes, owing no loyalty to the Republican leadership.
Still, losing the seat was hardly a victory for Republican leaders. Jones diminishes the GOP’s already slim Senate majority to 51 seats, giving the Democrats a better chance of taking over the Senate in 2018, and making it harder to generate the votes they need to pass President Trump's legislative agenda.
And it’s bad for Trump, who has now lost twice in Alabama, one of the reddest states in the country. Trump initially endorsed Sen. Luther Strange, who was appointed to fill the seat left vacant when former senator Jeff Sessions became Trump's attorney general, but Strange lost to Moore in the summer’s Republican primaries.
Democrats also carried the governors’ races in Virginia and New Jersey in November, an outcome they claimed as a referendum on Trump’s presidency.
In a Tuesday night tweet, Trumped looked ahead to the next election, saying “Republicans will have another shot at this seat in a very short period of time.” Jones was only elected to complete Sessions' term, which expires in 2020.
Jones’ win is part of a pattern where Democrats are turning out to take a stand against Trump, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
“This wouldn’t happen without Roy Moore’s personal behavior on top of that,” Murray said. “But it was Trump that provided the spark for Democrats to feel that they need to exert themselves in these off-year elections. And that, I think, is an indication for what we’re looking at for 2018.
“Democrats are starting to smell blood,” he said.
Jones’ victory will not only give Democrats momentum heading into 2018, but it will embolden Democrats calling for an investigation into Trump’s history of sexual harassment allegations, said Jim Manley, a former spokesman for former Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. Those allegations resurfaced this week when three of his accusers recounted their stories on the Megyn Kelly TODAY show.
“It’s going to highlight how much this issue of sexual harassment is resonating with voters now, especially women voters,” Manley said. “Even in conservative Alabama, it tripped up a guy who by many accounts is a hero to conservatives. I’m not convinced it would be that close except for these explosive allegations. It gave Democrats an opening to try to take this guy down that they didn’t necessarily have.”
Democrats need to win two more Republican seats — and hold all of their own — to win the Senate majority in 2018. That won’t come easy, given they’re defending 10 seats in states Trump won and other pickup opportunities appear limited, at this point, to Arizona and Nevada. But the Alabama win puts it in the realm of possibility.
Jones is a former U.S. Attorney who is known for prosecuting two Ku Klux Klansmen in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing which killed four African-American girls.
In his victory speech, Jones said, “This entire race has been about dignity and respect. This campaign has been about the rule of law.”
Jones’ win for Democrats is a parallel to Scott Brown’s 2010 victory in the Massachusetts Senate special election to replace the late Democratic icon Sen. Edward Kennedy, said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
“This could help their recruiting in redder states in both the Senate and the House,” she said.
Had he won, Moore's background and inflammatory positions, alone, would have been a constant headache for congressional Republicans.
Moore was twice removed from his position as chief justice of the state Supreme Court, once for refusing to remove a marble monument of the Ten Commandments from a state building, and later for refusing to enforce the state’s ban on same-sex marriage after it was deemed unconstitutional. He opposes LGBT rights and has spoken out against Muslims.
“To me, he was a bridge too far before any of this most recent reporting” on sexual misconduct allegations, said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.
Alabama’s senior senator, Richard Shelby, told CNN on Sunday he couldn't vote for Moore after hearing allegations that he sexually abused a 14-year-old girl at age 32. He cast a write-in vote for a Republican other than Moore, adding “The state of Alabama deserves better.”
A Moore victory would have lent credibility to the efforts of former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who campaigned for Moore as part of his bid to take on the Republican establishment, Duffy said.
Instead, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who did not endorse Moore and called on him to drop out, may get a political boost over Bannon — or even Trump.
“In a strange way, it strengthens McConnell’s and Senate Republicans’ position to say, ‘We know how elections are won, stay out of our way,’” Duffy said.