Alabama Proves Base Mobilization Isn’t Enough

I’d rather not have to write this, but it appears that I need to be a bit of a contrarian. The grassroots organizing in Alabama was outstanding, particularly in terms of mobilizing the black vote. This was critical in helping Doug Jones win a statewide election by around 20,000 votes in a state where Democrats usually have no chance. This has led to some predictable victory laps for a faction that believes that the way forward for the Democratic Party is to spend most of their resources and messaging on turning out the reliable base of the party, rather than trying to win back voters who have recently defected to the Republicans or third parties.

But, as Rachel Maddow pointed out on her show, had the votes in Alabama’s special election for Senate been cast instead for congressional candidates, the result would have been one Democratic seat and six Republican seats. This is exactly the makeup up of Alabama’s current congressional delegation. The only Democrat is Terri Sewell, who represents the 7th District based in Selma and the western Black Belt region of the state. And she would have been the only Democratic candidate to win last Tuesday.

It’s certainly nice to win statewide races, meaning races for governor and other important state positions like attorney general and secretary of state, as well as seats in the U.S. Senate. But this alone won’t do anything to help Democrats win back control of state legislatures and it won’t help them win back control of the House of Representatives.

Currently, the Democrats hopes for winning back control of Congress rely on the Republicans’ incredible dysfunction. But that kind of thing is mainly cyclical and only works when they’re already in power. The reason the Democrats can’t just sit back and accept the loss of so many rural and white working class voters is because this is giving the Republicans unprecedented power in legislatures all over the country.

If the Democrats want to win a presidential election or statewide elections, the strategy that was pursued in Alabama to boost base turnout is a good one that can and will work. It’s also true Doug Jones ran an aggressive campaign to win over disgruntled Republicans in the suburbs. This was roughly Hillary Clinton’s strategy, and it is definitely a workable strategy. It can even have some success in winning suburban seats in both congress and state legislatures. But it’s not enough to get the Democrats back to competitiveness.

Now, I’ll acknowledge that there’s a part of the electorate which has moved from Obama to Trump that isn’t coming back. But the point is that many of them will come back. Some may come back for the same reason they left, which was to try something new and to express their basic antiestablishment attitudes. Some may come back for no other reason than Trump is a failed experiment. But the ones that can come back and stay are the ones attracted to a message that is new and fresh and aimed at tackling their particular problems, including economic contraction due to corporate consolidation and lax antitrust enforcement.

It is a mistake to see this as a binary decision, where the party either focuses on base mobilization or it focuses on winning back white working class voters. It needs to do both at the same time or the Republicans will continue to have far more power in this country than the Democrats. Alabama’s results are proof of that.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.