If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a hundred times leading up to yesterday’s special Senate election in Alabama: If only Democrats had nominated a more conservative candidate than Doug Jones, they might have a chance to win an unlikely Senate seat. This argument was generally combined with an attack on the alleged ideological rigidity of Democrats, and specifically focused on abortion policy. Doug Jones, you see, held the standard pro-choice position of Democrats nationally, which meant support for abortion rights as defined by the U.S. Supreme Court more than 40 years ago, including the right to a (rare) late-term abortion in certain limited circumstances.
That doomed him, said a lot of people on both sides of the partisan aisle. Here’s one anti-Moore conservative:
Altogether 58 percent of adults in Alabama believe that abortion should be “illegal in all or most cases.” If they vote their conscience on Tuesday, Moore will seize the upper moral hand and easily defeat Jones, preserve the Republican Senate majority, and help advance backward stereotypes about the state.
It never had to be this way, though. With a little flexibility, Democrats could have sidestepped the issue altogether.
It turns out that Jones’s position on abortion was no impediment to victory. According to exit polls, Jones won 34 percent of the votes of the one-fourth of Alabamians who thought abortion “should be illegal in most cases,” and even 18 percent of those who want to ban abortion “in all cases.” Given the partisan dynamics of the abortion issue, it’s unlikely he would have done better with those voters even if he had been a solid opponent of abortion rights.
Now, some would argue that Roy Moore’s status as an alleged sexual predator made everything else irrelevant, including everything to do with Doug Jones. But exit polls also showed that most votes for or against either candidate did not turn on the Moore allegations alone, or even principally. And lest we forget, polls were showing Jones to be a viable candidate long before the allegations broke — and indeed, a viable candidate against the more conventional conservative Luther Strange.
Jones seems to have defied the old formula for Democratic victory in the Deep South, which meant choosing a partisan differentiator or two and displaying resolute conservatism on everything else. That made sense when a lot of white conservative voters were up for grabs. But after a generation of ideological and partisan polarization, many of the white folks who might have voted for moderate-to-conservative Democrats like Sam Nunn or Zell Miller (two former bosses of mine) in Georgia or Howell Heflin or Fob James in Alabama are now straight-ticket Republican voters. And it’s no accident that Miller and James ended their political careers by becoming Republicans themselves.
As Jones showed, however, there is an increasingly viable route to the age-old southern Democratic formula of securing nearly all of the African-American vote and just enough white voters to get across the line. Instead of appealing to rural conservatives, Democrats can, in many cases, successfully appeal to just enough urban and suburban moderates to reach parity. The exit polls showed Jones winning 30 percent of the white vote and well-above 90 percent of the African-American vote — close to the age-old criteria for winning in a southern state with a sizable black electorate (a bit larger than Virginia’s, a bit smaller than Georgia’s, Mississippi’s, or Louisiana’s). As New York’s Eric Levitz noted today, Jones’s biggest area of improvement over Hillary Clinton’s 2016 performance was in suburban areas. If this can work in Alabama, whose economy and culture remain very traditional, it can work in other parts of the South as well under the right circumstances, even without a sitting duck like Roy Moore on the ballot.
The best thing about being able to deploy a relatively progressive Democrat like Doug Jones rather than a conservative like Fob James isn’t just that Jones won’t be a functional Republican in Congress (though that’s a large bonus). It’s that Democrats can stop asking African-American voters to loyally support the Donkey ticket despite it featuring so many white pols who take them entirely for granted. The robust African-American turnout in Alabama on December 12 was attributable to many factors, including heroic local organizers, nationally prominent black politicians and celebrities, and the powerful antipathy both Trump and Moore aroused among nonwhite voters. But it didn’t hurt that Alabama’s black voters were turning out for a candidate who had performed a significant service to their community by successfully prosecuting the murderers who perpetrated the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, and who gave every indication that he would vote with left-of-center Democrats in the Senate.
In time, you can envision southern white Democrats returning the favor by running and supporting African-American politicians with views similar to those of Doug Jones and attracting the same kind of biracial coalition. (There’s some precedent for this, particularly in Georgia, where two moderate African-American Democrats held statewide office from 1998 until 2010). That will be both morally and politically essential as white voters represent a significantly smaller percentage of the Democratic electorate. But in any event, the days of southern Democrats being hard to distinguish from Republicans other than by an absence of overt bigotry should be over.