The bad news — and it’s really bad — for Democratic Senate nominee Doug Jones heading toward a December 12 special general election is that no one from his party has won a statewide election since 2008. And that was just the chairmanship of the Public Service Commission. The good news is that the one time it nearly happened since then (in 2012) the Republican candidate was Roy Moore.
That’s right: the Ten Commandments Judge, who had been stripped of the state’s Chief Justice’s gavel in 2003 for defying a federal court order to remove a giant monument to the Ten Commandments from his courtroom, and then lost two GOP gubernatorial primaries, made it back to the Chief Justice position five years ago by a narrow four-point margin over Democratic circuit court judge Bob Vance. As has generally been the case throughout Moore’s career, he was heavily outspent (better than six to one), but like the rest of the GOP ticket, won anyway.
Moore subsequently got into another fight with the federal judicial system, this time over compliance with the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision establishing a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. While he technically still holds his judicial office, in September 2016 he was suspended from the exercise of its powers until his term ends early in 2019.
The question now is whether Moore — who finished first in the GOP primary and then trounced incumbent Luther Strange in a runoff — is sufficiently controversial to enable Jones to break Alabama’s recently but firmly established mold of race-based partisan voting.
As in several other Deep South states, the tipping point where Republicans began routinely winning statewide and a majority of other contests in Alabama was in 2010, when the GOP conquered both state legislative chambers and every statewide position up for election. Before then, a coalition of 90 percent of African-Americans and 30–40 percent of white voters kept Democrats competitive, and even dominant at the state legislative level. Since then the Democratic share of the white vote in Alabama has regularly fallen below 20 percent; Barack Obama got around 10 percent in 2008 and 15 percent in 2012, according to exit polls (there were no exit polls in Alabama in 2016, but Donald Trump won a higher percentage of the total vote than did John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012, and it’s unlikely that enhanced margin came from African-Americans). Doug Jones is going to have to beat that performance significantly, while pulling off the difficult task of mobilizing minority voters in what is normally a low-turnout special election where Moore’s conservative Evangelical base will definitely show up.
One might normally think Jones could batten on embittered supporters of the GOP candidate Moore just beat. But it’s unclear there is a distinctive “Luther Strange vote.” Some voters probably pulled the lever for the incumbent because he was an incumbent, and others because the president and vice-president, along with the senior senator from Alabama (Richard Shelby), endorsed him. Moore is already getting solid GOP support, particularly from the White House.
There are, however, certainly Alabama Republicans who either don’t agree with Roy Moore’s theocratic views, and/or who fear he will damage the state’s image (and its attractiveness to transplants and investors) with the kind of extremist antics he’s performed so often in the past — but this time on the higher-profile platform of the U.S. Senate. Alabama, after all, is still sensitive to the hilarity surrounding their former governor (dubbed the Luv Guv) Robert Bentley, who was forced to resign after a lurid sex-and-corruption scandal. For reasons of his own, Luther Strange did not talk about Moore’s extremism during the primary and runoff (he tried, somewhat hilariously, to attack Moore as a “liberal” and a career politician). Doug Jones can and will, perhaps with quiet encouragement from the Alabama business community and other “respectable” opinion-leaders.
It is clear from the get-go that Jones understands Moore’s main vulnerability: In his initial statement on the general election, variations on the word “embarrassment” are used often:
After years of embarrassing headlines about top public officials in this state, this race is about the people of Alabama and about choosing a candidate with character and integrity they can be proud of. I will never embarrass the people of Alabama.
Jones’s own profile as the prosecutor of the 1963 Birmingham Church bombers certainly comports with what Alabamians would prefer to think about themselves. Beyond that, there are some things about the prospect of Roy Moore serving in the Senate that haven’t really been explored adequately. Is he going to ask his enemy Mitch McConnell for Jeff Sessions’s old seat on the Judiciary Committee? How appropriate would it be for a senator who has twice defied federal court orders to vote on confirmation of federal judges? And to what extent can a man who quite literally believes God Almighty is directing his career be expected to behave himself in Washington for the sake of his state’s reputation?
National Democrats have some decisions to make about Alabama. Putting a third GOP-held Senate seat into play (right now only Arizona and Nevada are deemed competitive) could convert 2018 from a purely defensive struggle for Senate Democrats into a drive — a long shot, but hardly impossible given the near-certainty of a midterm trend against the party controlling the White House — for actual control. Moore’s career-long aversion to fundraising could provide a real opening. But anything heavy-handed could help Judge Roy play the martyr and stimulate Alabama’s ideological and partisan juices in an unfortunate way for Doug Jones. The Democrat has a chance, but will have to run a much smarter campaign than Luther Strange’s, and provide voters who will otherwise just follow their Republican habits with reason to think twice about the spectacle — and it will be a spectacle — of Senator Roy Moore.