Should Democrats Go All-In on the Alabama Special Election?

On December 12th, Alabama will hold a special election between Republican Roy Moore and Democrat Doug Jones to see who will occupy the Senate seat held by Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III for 20 years. Moore’s extremism has some Democrats salivating. Here is E.J. Dionne:

Jones could do in Alabama this year what Republican Scott Brown did in a 2010 special election in Massachusetts: demonstrate the dominant party’s vulnerability going into the midterm elections by capturing a Senate seat far inside opposition territory. A Jones win would also cut the Republicans’ already tough-to-manage Senate majority to a bare 51 seats.

We’re starting to see some pressure being applied to the Democrats to go all-in on this race. In a year where they are outperforming all expectations in special elections, that might be good advice. So let’s take a closer look at the possibilities.

The first thing you might want to do is read Dave Weigel’s excellent piece about Doug Jones. The most prominent fact about him is that, as a former U.S. Attorney, he successfully prosecuted members of the Ku Klux Klan who bombed a black church in Birmingham in 1963. Here are some of the positions he has articulated:

Jones opposes the Hyde Amendment, which prevents any federal funding for abortion; while stopping short of endorsing Sanders’s “Medicare for All” bill, he supported the Democratic effort to save the Affordable Care Act, and criticized Alabama for declining to expand Medicaid. In an interview, he said he would have voted against Betsy DeVos’s nomination to be secretary of education, and might have opposed Neil M. Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

In bluer states, that wouldn’t mark him as a fire-breathing liberal. But Alabama is a whole different story.

Weigel outlines three things that would have to happen in order for Jones to win.

  1. Strong African American turnout
  2. Garner 30 percent of the white vote (some say more than 35 percent)
  3. Overcome the hurdle of a special election on December 12th

The first thing that jumps out at me is how someone goes about accomplishing #1 and #2 simultaneously in a state like Alabama. It is true that Jones’s work on behalf of civil rights enforcement will be a strong asset in a state where the Democratic Party is dominated by African Americans, who comprise 25 percent of the overall population. But what is harder to imagine is how he attracts 30+ percent of the white vote in a state where Democratic presidential candidates tend to get about 10 percent. J. Miles Coleman gives us a point of reference.

Liberals who are salivating over the possibilities assume that Moore’s extremism will have a negative impact on white Alabamians. Nathan Gonzales offers a critique of that assumption.

In general, it’s easy to forget that what offends voters and reporters outside of Alabama is part of the reason Moore got this far within Alabama.

Keep in mind that the seat’s previous occupant, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, was deemed to be too racist for a federal judgeship, but that didn’t stop voters in Alabama from electing him to the Senate for the last 20 years.

None of that is to say that the situation is hopeless or that Democrats shouldn’t do all they can to support Jones. But let’s not set up some false expectations that turn into doom and gloom for the 2018 midterms if we don’t see a major upset. The truth is that if Jones is even able to be competitive, that would be a huge win for Democrats.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.