Politics

After Alabama, How Optimistic Should Democrats Be for 2018?

The special election may have been unique, but strategists see important lessons

Supporters of Alabama Democrat Doug Jones celebrate his victory over Judge Roy Moore at the Sheraton in Birmingham, Ala., on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Within minutes of Doug Jones’ victory Tuesday night, they started coming in — a flood of fundraising emails from other Democrats around the country, many running in red territory.

“Next up, Texas,” read the subject line for a fundraising email from Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who’s hoping to topple Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz next year.

“NOTHING is off-limits” was the subject of an email from South Carolina Democrat Archie Parnell, who over-performed Hillary Clinton in a special election earlier this year but lost to Republican Ralph Norman

“Last night was not a fluke; it was a message,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said on a postelection conference call Wednesday morning. He pointed to recent Democratic wins in New Jersey and Virginia and state legislative wins throughout the year.

“I firmly believe Democrats can win everywhere,” Perez said. The party is doing better at organizing earlier and fielding candidates in what were once dismissed as unwinnable places, he said.

All that may sound like an overly optimistic takeaway.

Jones barely defeated a Republican opponent facing multiple allegations of sexual misconduct with minors. Roy Moore had been disowned by Senate GOP leaders and criticized on national TV by his state’s senior senator. Democrats were able to vastly outspend Moore, an imbalance unlikely to be repeated in next year’s competitive Senate races.

So how much optimism should Jones’ win really give Democrats heading into 2018?

Watch: So Special — 4 More Special Elections On the Way, So Far

 

Reality check

“The reality check is that not all the states Democrats have to run and succeed in look like Alabama or Virginia,” said J.B. Poersch, executive director of Senate Majority PAC. North Dakota and West Virginia, for example, aren’t nearly as purple as Virginia and aren’t likely to have GOP nominees as controversial as Moore.

“I don’t think there’s too many candidates out there that are going to be nationally recognized pedophiles,” another Democratic strategist said, highlighting the uniqueness of the Alabama race. Weeks before the election, several women alleged Moore pursued them when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s — including one who said she was 14 when he assaulted her.

There’s no question Moore’s issues, even before the sexual assault allegations, played a role in this race. He was a controversial state Supreme Court chief justice who was twice ousted from the bench. 

“I don’t have reason to think Jones would be the next senator from Alabama had these victims not come forward to tell their stories,” said Zac McCrary, an Alabama-based pollster who conducted polling for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Republicans who could not support Moore were a key factor in the race, and Jones’ victory, but they did not all support Jones. Nearly 23,000 voters opted to write in a candidate on their ballot, likely taking votes from Moore. Jones won by nearly 21,000 votes.  

Still, there are reasons for Democrats to be hopeful, starting with the increased turnout that has narrowed margins in special elections around the country all year.

“Donald Trump is an accelerant to Democratic turnout,” McCrary said.

McCrary is encouraged that independents seem to be coming back to the Democrats.

“That’s when waves happen — when you have a turnout advantage, which Democrats have, and when swing voters break decidedly toward one party,” he said.

And while Trump is pushing Democrats out to vote, he may also be keeping at home Republican voters who chose him last fall simply because they didn’t want Clinton.

“The biggest reason the wave came in 2006 was Republicans were depressed as a party; they didn’t turn out,” the Democratic strategist said.

Democrats now need to pick up two seats to win the Senate majority next year. Nevada and Arizona are still seen as top pickup opportunities, but the party also sees much better odds in Tennessee and Texas.

But Republicans see Alabama as an anomaly.

“If the belief is that Alabama is the beginning of a blue wave, I’ve got an iceberg in Texas for anyone who’s interested,” Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Wednesday.

“Candidates matter. Campaigns matter. Special elections are special,” Mark Braden, a Republican consultant in Tennessee, said in an email Wednesday.

Still, Jones’ victory Tuesday, regardless of how ephemeral it may prove to be, should open up resources for Senate Democrats. When donors believe there’s a path to victory, they’re more likely to open their checkbooks, the Democratic strategist said.

And the enthusiasm gap could also trickle down to the House, where Democrats need to gain 24 seats to win the majority.

“As a Southern Democrat, I’ve never been more confident than I am right now,” said Tyler Jones, a consultant in South Carolina. “I’ve been on the phone all day with people who are now interested in running for office.” 

Democrats who didn’t want to run before are now excited about sending a message, he said.

But another Democratic strategist cautioned that the biggest takeaway from Tuesday shouldn’t be about messaging.

The more important lesson? Tactics.

“I hope people don’t just focus on the shiny thing of ‘Trump sucks,’” the strategist said. “I really hope they focus on learning tactics.”

What went right

Even though the unique circumstances in the Alabama race likely won’t be replicated elsewhere, Jones and his supporters say other Democrats can learn from his campaign.

“If you have the right candidate and the resources to articulate that message, we can win everywhere,” said Giles Perkins, Jones’ campaign chairman.

Perkins, whom Jones dubbed the “Yoda” of his campaign, referring to the wise, green “Star Wars” character, said the key was keeping the race focused on local issues.

Jones’ roots in Alabama and notoriety for convicting two Ku Klux Klan members responsible for the 1963 bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church were helpful to his campaign, some supporters said.

“He’s totally that person from Alabama who’s born and raised here,” said Heather Allen, 31, who was at Jones’ election night rally in Birmingham.

A slew of outside groups were vocal in their support for Jones. While he also had help from the national Democratic Party, that backing largely stayed under the radar.

Tying Jones to the national party could have hurt him with moderate Republican voters, and muddied his message that he was focused squarely on Alabama.

The Democratic National Committee had been involved since the end of the Republican primary, which went to a runoff in September, according to Perez. The committee sent organizers South and focused on turning out millennial and African-American voters.

In coordination with local groups, Senate Majority PAC was involved in the race four weeks before The Washington Post published the allegations of sexual misconduct against Moore. The group helped knock on over 520,000 doors and also prioritized targeting communication to millennials and African-Americans.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee was on the ground, too, sending staff to help the campaign process donations and handle a barrage of media requests, according to a DSCC official.

The committee conducted polling after the GOP runoff that showed a path to victory, and dispatched deputy executive director Tracey Lewis to Alabama to help the campaign develop and implement its expansive field program. The DSCC spent the state’s limit on coordinated party expenditures — $366,700 — mainly on staff and operations.

The DSCC official stressed that the committee’s efforts served to bolster Jones’ campaign, which took the lead.

“This was Doug’s race and Doug’s team,” the official said.  

Jones’ message was centered squarely on what he dubbed “kitchen table issues” such as health care, education and the economy. He admitted Wednesday it was difficult to stay on message at times with constant controversies swirling in national politics.

Aditi Prasad, 22, noted at the election night rally that #KitchenTable had been trending on Twitter. She said other Democrats could learn from Jones’ diligent economic messaging.

Prasad, a student at Birmingham-Southern College, said the campaign had been active in organizing on college campuses.

The Jones team essentially had to build a ground operation from scratch, due to a dilapidated state party. But it realized this early on, and with the help of national organizers, were able to reach scores of voters, especially in the final weeks of the election.

Campaign volunteers knocked on 300,000 doors in the last seven weeks of the race, including 80,000 in the final weekend. They also made 1.2 million phone calls in that period.

Jones thanked the party for its support at a Wednesday press conference.

“They provided the support that we needed,” he said, before adding, “We wanted to make sure this race remained local.”

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.