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The Danger of Reading Too Much Into Alabama’s Special Election

Whether Democrats will be able to replicate their upset victory in the 2018 midterms is far from certain.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Two things that the political press excels at are intensive (I would say excessive) speculation about who will win a particular race, and overconcluding about its result. (Paying no attention to the first is an excellent way to save time.) Yet while speculation is harmless (if people lay money on the basis of it, that’s their problem), overconcluding can lead to unwarranted expectations and major disappointments—even to a sense that the election must have been stolen or rigged, a disillusionment with politics. Which could then lead to non-participation, which as we’ve seen can tip a race in a certain direction.

While the celebrating of the remarkable victory of Doug Jones over Roy Moore for Alabama’s U.S. Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions was certainly warranted, overconcluding is rampant. (I’m willing to bet that President Trump, who is skilled at transferring blame, has upped his anger at Sessions now for accepting his invitation to be attorney general.) That the Alabama senatorial election came down to those two particular individuals was like a planetary collision. We’re not likely to see another like it for a very long time. 

Each of the two final Senate candidates was unique. On the Republican side was an erratic figure who’d been twice removed as chief justice of the state Supreme Court, once for ordering state judges to disobey a U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage (Moore considers homosexuality “evil,” and likened the decision to the Dred Scott case) and also for his defiance of a federal judge’s order that a huge statue commemorating the Ten Commandments be removed from his courthouse. Great numbers of Alabamans considered him the wrong man to represent Alabama in the U.S. Senate even before the disclosure in The Washington Post on November 9 that he had a history of pursuing and molesting little girls when he was in his thirties. One would have to look long and hard to find a candidate who’d been ordered to stay away from a small-town shopping mall because of his predilection for picking up underage waitresses. The views of the racially insensitive (I’m being kind) Roy Moore are antithetical to a great number of Alabama Republicans who want to see the state shed the detritus of the George Wallace era and move into the 21st century. They want to see the state make further advances in education, science, and high tech. Moore wasn’t the leader to take them there. 

On the other hand, Doug Jones was the unusual mix of a moderate Democrat with deep ties in the African-American community. Appointed a U.S. attorney in 1997 by Bill Clinton, Jones soon prosecuted and won the conviction of the remaining two Ku Klux Klan members who’d plotted the infamous 1963 bombing of a Birmingham Baptist church that killed four black girls. No one before Jones had taken up the case and he thus became a hero among Alabama blacks. Unlike most white candidates, Jones didn’t show up in black communities as a stranger. Yamiche Alcindor of The New York Times pointed out on Morning Joe that while white candidates usually go into black areas “yelling about incarceration” Jones talked about the same kinds of bread-and-butter issues—jobs and health care—that blacks care about as much as whites do. 

Moore, with his firm backing by Trump (after some wavering), was enough of a threat to get black voters, especially black women, to vote in uncommon percentages (despite the state’s efforts to suppress the black vote) for Jones. Trump’s at best cavalier treatment of blacks and his retrograde domestic policies were having their impact. Moore of course also had the prominent backing of the scruffy Steve Bannon, who saw Moore as a useful tool in his war on the Republican establishment and who was of no comfort to African Americans. Much that Bannon talked about in Alabama, such as his extended attack on Mitt Romney, was of little help to Moore. Bannon the outsider was inept in his public appearances, for instance telling audiences that Alabamans didn’t want outsiders coming in to tell them how to vote.

Democrats’ nationwide jubilation at Jones’s victory, is understandable: It’s much more exciting when the underdog wins, and all the more so in this case because this triumph had been pulled off in a deeply conservative state; the last time there’d been a victorious Democrat was 25 years ago (and that one, Richard Shelby, turned Republican in 1994). Jones defeated a man unqualified for the office backed by a president unqualified for the office.  He ran a picture-perfect campaign, getting himself all over the state and going into areas nominally unlikely to support him; Moore was missing from the contest (and at some point from the state) for the last two weeks, showing up just before election day.

The enthusiasm of Democrats to cast their ballots, like that displayed in Virginia a month before, was taken as a highly encouraging sign for Democrats for the 2018 midterm elections. But while a blue wave may well be forming across the nation, and while Trump himself might be the Democrats’ strongest weapon in 2018, there are grounds for pause before assuming that next November will produce a series of Alabamas. That contest had several unique features. First, given the vast chasm between the qualifications and records of the two Alabama candidates, the Democrat’s victory was quite narrow: Jones prevailed by only one and a half points, or 20,715 votes. He was the proverbial dog walking on his hind legs.  

Moreover, Jones’s lead in votes was outnumbered by 22,811 write-ins—most of them for the hugely popular University of Alabama football coach—believed to have come from college-educated Republican suburbanites and other voters who couldn’t tolerate Moore but also couldn’t bring themselves to vote for a Democrat. The write-in vote was encouraged over the final weekend by none other than Richard Shelby, who announced that he couldn’t vote for Moore (and likely didn’t want him as a Senate colleague) and so had written in the name of someone else. (Bannon commented later that there’s “a special place in Hell” for people like Shelby.)   

People can take all the pleasure they want out of Jones’s so little-speculated victory, but they’d be well-advised to curb their overconcluding. The particular circumstances of that most unusual race are unlikely to be replicated.