By Adrian Flynn
Yesterday Doug Jones was sworn in as the junior Senator from Alabama, the first Democrat to hold an Alabama Senate seat since 1997. His election rocked the national political landscape, creating a showdown between centrist and far-right values in a state which Donald Trump won in 2016 with 62.1%. Of course, many factors played a role in the victory of Doug Jones and the defeat of GOP nominee, former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court Roy Moore. In particular, unusually high Democratic turnout, a divided Republican party that resulted in a good amount of write-in votes, and the allegations that hurt Moore decided the outcome of the Special Election.
Setting the Stage
The seat Jones now holds was vacated by Jeff Sessions, who was confirmed as Attorney General on February 8. The next day, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley appointed Attorney General of Alabama Luther Strange to hold the seat until the special election. During his short-lived tenure in the Senate he was among twenty-two senators to sign a letter urging the President to pull the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement. He also sponsored bills that held that human life begins at fertilization (S. 1456: Sanctity of Human Life Act,) and to prohibit subjecting gun dealers to reporting requirements for the sale of multiple rifles or shotguns to the same person (S. 1397: Protecting the Second Amendment Act.) By Alabama standards, Strange was a centrist Republican.
Strange launched his campaign to keep his seat in the Special Election and quickly garnered the endorsements of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the senior Senator from Alabama Richard Shelby, Vice President Mike Pence and of course, President Donald Trump. However, Judge Roy Moore, who has been criticized for his controversial far-right sentiments — known for making racist, homophobic and Islamophobic statements — challenged Strange for the Republican nomination. He was also a proponent of the infamous “Birther” movement, falsely alleging President Obama was not born in the United States. Moore nonetheless managed to receive endorsements from a number of influential figures such as former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, US Housing Secretary Ben Carson, commentator Ann Coulter, British politician Nigel Farage, actor Chuck Norris and seven current Republican members of the House of Representatives. In the primary, Strange and Moore advanced to a runoff with 32.8% and 38.9%, respectively.
By contrast, former federal prosecutor Doug Jones easily won the Democratic Primary, securing the nomination with 66.1% of the vote. He is best known for prosecuting two KKK members who perpetrated the 1963 church bombing that killed four African-American girls in Birmingham. Among his endorsers were former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire. Biden was one of the first to encourage Jones to seek the office. At that stage, almost no one expected Jones to have a chance to win in solidly-Republican Alabama.
The Campaign Trail and Moore on the Defense
The first major shock of this election came in the Republican runoff between Strange and Moore on September 26, in which Moore bested Strange by 54.6% of the vote and won all but 4 of Alabama’s 67 counties. Moore carried this victory despite a record of two suspensions from the Alabama Supreme Court, first for refusing a federal court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the courthouse, and then for defying the May 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision on gay marriage.
Afterwards, the President rushed to tweet: “Congratulations to Roy Moore on his Republican Primary win in Alabama. Luther Strange started way back & ran a good race. Roy, WIN in Dec!” and also commented “Sounds like a really great guy who ran a fantastic race. He will help to #MAGA!” At that moment, it seemed like Moore would easily win the Senate seat. Alabama had not elected a Democrat to the Senate in 30 years, Moore had already won a statewide election despite having been removed from the Alabama Supreme Court, and now he had the support of the President, who was very popular in the state. Mainstream Republicans were silent, but as happened in many other cases, it seemed likely that they would fall in line and lend their support to him.
However, events in November changed the entire election landscape.. Nine women came forward to accuse Moore of sexual misconduct, three of which accused him of sexual assault (two when they were 16 and 14). Six of the women alleged that Moore either pursued relationships or engaged in unwanted behavior with them while they were between the ages of 16 and 22. Except for one incident that took place in 1991, all these cases dated back to the 1970’s, while Moore was an assistant district attorney. Furthermore, Faye Gray, a former Alabama police officer who worked in the 1980’s said on MSNBC: “we were told to watch him at the ballgames… and make sure he didn’t hang around the cheerleaders.” Moore was never criminally charged.
Moore responded to the allegations on Sean Hannity’s radio talk show on November 10th, stating “These allegations are completely false, false and misleading… I have a special concern for protection of young ladies.” On November 27 in a public campaign event, he said “This is simply dirty politics. It’s a sign of the immorality of our times” and went on to use an all-too familiar tagline, calling the allegations “fake news”, as they were published by The Washington Post, despised by both him and the President.
Following the allegations, Moore quickly lost the support of the main figures of the GOP establishment: Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker Paul Ryan, former Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney, Ohio Governor John Kasich, Senators Mike Lee, Steve Daines, Bill Cassidy, Ted Cruz and Cory Gardner all revoked their endorsements and suggested he withdraw from the Senate race. Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona even donated $100 to the Jones campaign, citing “country over party.” Richard Shelby, the senior Senator from Alabama, said “Alabama deserves better.” The RNC temporarily halted its work in supporting Moore’s campaign.
Yet it was too late revoke his nomination. Republicans were stuck with deciding whether or not to try a last-minute write-in campaign. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Orrin Hatch floated this idea to elect Luther Strange, and McConnell even proposed attempting to elect Attorney General Sessions. The President, on the other hand, continued to support Moore, citing his denials: “He totally denies it … He says it didn’t happen. You have to listen to him also.” He also took the opportunity to attack Moore’s Democratic opponent, tweeting on November 26: “The last thing we need in Alabama and the U.S. Senate is a Schumer/Pelosi puppet who is WEAK on Crime, WEAK on the Border, Bad for our Military and our great Vets, Bad for our 2nd Amendment, AND WANTS TO RAISES TAXES TO THE SKY. Jones would be a disaster!”
Meanwhile, Doug Jones was focusing his efforts on rallying voters and raising campaign funds. By December, all major political prediction sites rated the race as either a “toss-up” or a “tilt Democratic.” The Jones campaign especially focused on African-American communities across the state, devoting a large portion of funding to voter outreach.
On the other hand, Steve Bannon opened rallies for Moore, and routinely questioned the merits of the accusations: “Let’s be right, ok, this whole thing was a setup, this whole thing was weaponized, right?” Moore and his campaign refused to debate Jones, with Moore stating, “There’s a great disparity; we don’t need to debate.” On December 4, the RNC hastily reaffirmed its support for Moore, just hours after President Trump tweeted that: “Democrats refusal to give even one vote for massive Tax Cuts is why we need Republican Roy Moore to win in Alabama. We need his vote on stopping crime, illegal immigration, Border Wall, Military, Pro Life, V.A., Judges, 2nd Amendment and more. No to Jones, a Pelosi/Schumer Puppet!” On Election Day, December 12, Jones received the support of Former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton via Twitter. Additionally, Obama recorded a ‘robocall’ that was placed to Alabama voters in the final days before the election.
The Blue Victory and a Road to Bipartisanship
On the evening of December 12, Americans awaited the outcome of the election with nervous anticipation. I myself eagerly stayed up that night until the AP called the election at 10:23 PM. In around the half hour before it was called, with all precincts having reported in rural Moore-leaning counties, and with more precincts to count in urban Jones-leaning counties, it was already becoming clear that Jones would likely edge out Moore. A few exit poll statistics are especially telling: 60% of voters between the ages of 18-29, 61% of voters under 45, 93% of African-American men and 98% of African-American women voted for Jones. The outreach programs had particularly focused on the registration of young people and African-Americans, which significantly increased the total shares of both demographics. Additionally, the last-minute scramble by Republicans alienated many moderate Republicans and Independents, who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Moore or Jones, with write-ins making up 1.7% of the final vote total. The write-in votes included Luther Strange, who won about 7,800 votes and Jeff Sessions, who won just over 400 votes. Many write-in votes were comedic entries of “Anyone Else,” “Any Other Republican,” “Mickey Mouse,” “Bugs Bunny,” “Spongebob Squarepants,” and “Jesus Christ.” Meanwhile, Moore slightly underperformed Donald Trump in the rural counties whose votes he had most anticipated. Ultimately, Jones bested Moore 49.9% to 48.4% (by 20,715 votes.)
In Jones’ victory speech, he remarked, ”I have always believed that the people of Alabama have more in common than that divide us. We have shown not just around the state of Alabama but we have shown the country the way that we can be unified… I’ve said it before, Alabama has been at a crossroads. We have been at crossroads in the past. And unfortunately we have usually taken the wrong fork. Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, you took the right road.”
Jones enjoyed congratulations from political figures across the spectrum, even earning a somewhat warm remark from the President himself, who could not resist mentioning the effect that write-in votes had on the election: “Congratulations to Doug Jones on a hard fought victory. The write-in votes played a very big factor, but a win is a win. The people of Alabama are great, and the Republicans will have another shot at this seat in a very short period of time. It never ends!” On December 13, the Roy Moore campaign released a video in which he refused to concede the election, citing that it had yet to receive the results from Alabama officials, notably stating, “Abortion, sodomy and materialism [had] taken the place of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill quickly responded, clarifying it was “highly unlikely” that Jones would not be certified as the winner. Jones stated, “The people of Alabama have spoken, it’s time to move on.”
Many political analysts were quick to point out the potential impact that the sexual misconduct allegations against Moore played in the election. However, Jones’ chief media strategist, Joe Trippi, disagrees with the assertion that Jones would have lost if not for the allegations, as the candidates “were in a dead heat in Alabama on election day.” He went on to say he believed that Moore was compromised as a candidate even before the allegations surfaced: “The race was pretty defined by the time those allegations came out. I definitely think they hurt him. But what if we had we spent all those days talking about why he’d been removed from office, about some of the crazy things he’d said over time?”
Since his election, Jones has expressed hopes of promoting bipartisanship. He doesn’t plan on labeling himself as a progressive or a conservative Democrat but as a “Doug Jones Democrat,” and that people should not “expect me to vote solidly for Republicans or Democrats.” He has appeared on Fox News, CNN and NBC, signaling a willingness to reach out to all parts of partisan demographics.
Senator Doug Jones and ‘The Radical Middle’
Whether or not one would argue that this result is a harbinger of what is to come in 2018 or beyond in the American political landscape, the 2016 Alabama Special Election was undoubtedly monumental. It edged the Democrats closer to a majority in the Senate, now divided at just 51-49, giving Republicans little leeway for legislative accomplishment. It galvanized not only national conversation but electoral action against sexual misconduct, which the 2016 Presidential Election largely failed to do, despite the many allegations of sexual misconduct against President Trump. Finally, it has shown that a well-run campaign that activates communities to get out the vote can defy political norms in any state, even Alabama.
On December 28, 2017, the Alabama State Canvassing Board certified Doug Jones as the election winner, effectively ignoring the claims of the Moore campaign. However, Moore has yet to officially concede the race and has continued to solicit contributions from supporters for an “election integrity fund.” Meanwhile, on January 2, Jones announced that he would be hiring former Department of Transportation staffer and Birmingham native Dana Gresham as his Chief of Staff, making Gresham the only current African-American Chief of Staff for a Democratic Senator.
On January 3, 2018, two new members of the U.S. Senate were sworn in by Vice President Pence: Tina Smith of Minnesota and Doug Jones of Alabama. Walking through the Capitol for his swear-in ceremony, Jones stated, “I think any good Senator is bipartisan, and that’s what I’m looking to [be].” Joe Biden was also present to escort the Jones family and for the photo-op after the swearing-in ceremony, urging him to “Smile, man, smile!” and joking, “Howell Heflin’s looking at you” — a nod to the last Democrat to hold office as a Senator from Alabama. Afterwards, Jones was able to meet many members of congress, including Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, whom he had not previously met. Like Jones, Manchin represents a conservative state, and was able to offer Jones a word of greeting as one who had experienced a similar situation in a turbulent time: “Welcome to the radical middle.”