7 Lessons From the Democrats’ Triumph in Alabama

Jonesing. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

Republicans will try to paint Doug Jones’s improbable triumph as a freak occurrence. In a narrow sense, they’re right. Alabama is not the new Brooklyn. If the GOP hadn’t nominated a man with the gender politics of the Taliban — and the sexual reputation of Humbert Humbert — lonely liberals in the Heart of Dixie would have nothing to smile about this morning.

And yet, while Jones’s win was the electoral equivalent of a 500-year flood, it was also indicative of changes in our nation’s political climate that are bound to increase the frequency — and intensity — of such freak storms going forward.

So, for all that was idiosyncratic about Alabama’s special Senate election, the race has plenty of implications for the 2018 midterms — and perhaps, for President Trump’s policy agenda. Here’s a quick rundown of seven lessons from the Democrats’ triumph in Tuscaloosa:

1) Black votes matter.

The Democratic Party is historically powerless. It is also considerably more popular than the GOP, and has won more votes in six of the last seven presidential elections. The conventional explanation for this discrepancy has been that, while Democrats win the most voters, they lose the most valuable ones: America’s political institutions dilute the influence of younger, nonwhite, urban voters — who are also less likely to show up at the polls than older, suburban, and rural whites, especially in midterm elections.

The first part of that argument is as true today as it was yesterday. The Electoral College, Senate, and (heavily gerrymandered) House map all give disproportionate influence to white rural voters. But the second claim — that a party with a nonwhite base is doomed to low turnout in off-year elections — is looking mighty specious this morning.

If one had to explain Doug Jones’s win in a sentence it’d be this: The Republican base voted like Alabama was holding an off-year special election, while African-Americans turned out like control of the White House was on the line. On Tuesday, Jones won nearly as many votes in Jefferson County (home to Birmingham) as Hillary Clinton did in 2016. And all across the Black Belt — the rural region known for its dark, fertile soil and large African-American population — voters turned out in aberrantly high numbers. This level of civic participation is remarkable, given all the forms of voter suppression that black Alabamians face. Without such turnout, Jones’s win would have been impossible. The vast majority of white voters in Alabama preferred a theocratic alleged ephebophile to a Democrat.

The strength of black voter participation Tuesday night suggests that the demographic’s low turnout rates in other recent midterms was borne of the (almost inevitable) complacency that comes from having one’s preferred president in the White House, as well as insufficient outreach from the Democratic Party and its affiliated institutions.

Neither of those things should be a problem in 2018. And that’s a big problem for the GOP.

2) The suburbs are for swingers.

When polls showed Donald Trump gaining ground with white, working-class Democrats in the Midwest last summer, Chuck Schumer was sanguine. “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin,” the Democratic senator reasoned.

This quote became infamous in the days after Trump’s election. But Schumer’s calculus was less faulty than it appeared. Hillary Clinton really did perform historically well in traditionally Republican, upper-middle-class suburbs throughout the Northeast and Sun Belt. The Electoral College just gave her scant credit for these gains.

But the inroads Democrats made in “Panera-land” could prove more valuable in future elections. For decades, high-income suburbs have been a key part of the GOP base. This year’s special elections have made those enclaves look like battlegrounds — or even, Blue America’s new frontiers.

In Alabama, Doug Jones won 57 percent of the vote in Madison County, an area with a smaller African-American population than the state as whole — but a much more affluent and highly educated white population. And the Democratic candidate’s massive margin in Jefferson County would have been impossible without his unusually high support in Birmingham’s (historically conservative) suburbs. On Tuesday night, Jones won a majority of votes in only one of Alabama’s (heavily gerrymandered) congressional districts — but Democrats made their largest gains, by far, in a deeply suburban district that Jones lost.

Republicans will want to dismiss this as a mere rejection of Roy Moore’s personal and political extremities. But the upper-middle-class’s left turn just delivered Democrats a ten-point victory in Virginia’s gubernatorial race — and before that, had helped Team Blue outperform expectations in nearly every special election held in 2017.

The GOP’s militant anti-feminism and anti-intellectualism have long been liabilities for the party among college-educated, suburban women. Trump’s election — and the post-Weinstein revolution — have made those liabilities more politically salient. These developments could be enough to generate a suburban realignment. And if they aren’t, the Trump tax cuts just might.

A certain kind of moderate Republican voter is wedded to the GOP for material reasons, even as she’s grown alienated from the party culturally. But the idea that comfortable professionals — and libertarian billionaires — have the same economic interests has always been a fiction. And the GOP tax bill reads as if it were designed to alert upper-middle-class voters to this fact. The legislation takes from affluent homeowners in high-tax states to give to the heirs of multimillion-dollar fortunes. The bill hands out large tax breaks to capitalists, but modest-to-nonexisting ones to high-income laborers.

Charles Koch may have little use for well-funded public schools and universities, Social Security, or child-care subsidies. But the professional class does. Welfare liberalism is in virtually every American’s material interest. And so, next year, the culturally moderate Republicans of Panera-land could revolt — they have nothing to lose but their shame.

3) The modern Republican Party has no future in a democratic United States.

Yes, both the Republican nominee and turnout pattern in last night’s special election was unusual. But the fact that a Republican lost voters under 45 by 23 points — in Alabama — suggests that American conservatism, as we’ve known it, is not long for this Earth (assuming American conservatives don’t foment a military coup).

4) Donald Trump’s brand is busted — even in Alabama.

Trump was an historically unpopular president from the moment he was sworn in. But over his first year in office, his approval has fallen far from a low perch. The president is losing support among self-identified Republicans — and self-identified Republicans are becoming a smaller fraction of the overall electorate.

Last night in Alabama, 48 percent of voters approved of the president — and 48 percent did not. In November 2016, Trump won the Yellowhammer State by nearly 30 points.

5) Republicans (probably) won’t be able to pay for tax cuts for the rich by taking food away from poor kids.

Jones’s victory probably won’t derail the GOP’s tax-cut bill. Alabama won’t certify the election results for another ten days, and Republicans plan to complete their overhaul of the tax code by early next week.

But Paul Ryan had planned to follow tax cuts for the rich with austerity for the poor. House Republicans have already begun work on a “welfare reform” package for 2019 — one that would involve steep cuts to food stamps, cash assistance to needy families, Medicaid, and, just maybe, Medicare.

This was always going to be a tough sell in a Senate that declined to repeal Obamacare a few short months ago. Now, it appears dead on arrival. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski have evinced little interest in slashing the safety net. And two GOP no votes will be enough to kill any “welfare reform” package.

6) Political parties should take pains to avoid nominating sex criminals.

For all the GOP’s deeper problems, it remains true that any Republican who hadn’t (allegedly) been banned from a shopping mall for creeping on middle-school girls would have won last night. But the fact that voters punished the Republican for his alleged sexual misbehavior shouldn’t be all that comforting to GOP pooh-bahs in this post-Weinstein moment, for reasons Nate Silver deftly explains:

Both Republicans and Democrats will have to deal with other candidates — perhaps dozens of them — who are credibly accused of sexual harassment or sexual assault. Polls suggest that voters care quite a lot about this misconduct — Al Franken’s approval ratings tanked in Minnesota after several allegations of groping and unwanted kissing, for example. Again, there’s risk here to both parties, but because Republicans occupy most of the swing seats in the House — and because a higher percentage of Republican members of Congress are men — they have somewhat more liability [my emphasis].

One lesson for Democrats going forward: When in doubt, nominate the female candidate. Sex (crime) scandals come with a big electoral cost, and men are, in the aggregate, far more likely to have one.

7) Donald Trump picking Jeff Sessions for attorney general was (probably) a net win for progressives.

President Jeb Bush would (almost certainly) have still afflicted America with heinous health-care and tax-cut bills; reactionary judicial nominees; and a flagrantly corrupt regulatory regime. But one horror that virtually any non-Trump Republican president would have spared America is Jeff Sessions’s presence at the top of the Justice Department. Before Trump’s rise, the GOP Establishment was making peace with criminal-justice reform, and a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented. Now, a hard-core nativist who believes in imprisoning casual marijuana smokers is the top law-enforcement agent in the United States.

And yet, in hindsight, Sessions’s appointment to that post might prove to be a boon for American liberalism. Had Trump picked someone else, the Robert Mueller investigation probably wouldn’t exist — and Doug Jones definitely wouldn’t be heading to the Senate. The former is likely depressing support for both the president and his party, and the latter might just save our country’s most vulnerable people from draconian cuts to the safety net. Given that Trump was always going to tap someone at least 75 percent as troglodytic as Sessions for attorney general anyway, it was probably for the best that he settled on the Alabama senator.

7 Lessons From the Democrats’ Triumph in Alabama