Could a Democrat Actually Win a Senate Seat in Alabama? Precedents Are Few, but Telling


A Democratic victory in an Alabama Senate race would rank as one of the most improbable, astonishing outcomes in the last few years of improbable, astonishing political events.

So, yes, this could happen.

The Roy Moore-Doug Jones contest is like a mad experiment to test the limits of Republican strength in Alabama, perhaps the toughest for Democrats in the country. It might be reasonable to say that if Democrats can’t win it here and now, they just can’t win it as long as the country remains so divided by race, religion and education.

Mr. Moore, the Republican, was an electorally weak nominee even before allegations of sexual misconduct with teenage girls led Republican leaders to call for him to leave the race. He’s running at a moment when the president’s approval rating is in the 30s and when the state Republican Party remains bruised from the resignation of Robert Bentley as governor last spring because of a sex scandal. Perhaps most concerning for Republican hopes, this is a special election. Mr. Moore will be the only reason for Republican voters to show up and vote.

A Republican defeat in Alabama would jeopardize the party’s Senate majority in the midterms in 2018. Democrats need a net gain of three seats to take the chamber, but in 2018 they have only two good opportunities, in Arizona and Nevada, and must defend 10 seats in states that voted for Donald J. Trump. A Democratic victory in Alabama would hand the party that third, tough-to-find state even before the beginning of the cycle.

It is probably far too soon to get a good sense of where the race will end up, especially since it is not clear whether a write-in candidate will enter the race. Recent polls have not been of the highest quality, but they suggest a tight race. There’s a simple reason Mr. Moore is still very competitive: Alabama is just that conservative.

Alabama voted for Mr. Trump by 28 percentage points in 2016, but even this doesn’t do justice to the Republican strength there.

The state is deeply polarized by race. Hillary Clinton probably didn’t win even 15 percent of white Alabama voters last year. Black voters represent a quarter of the electorate, and made up around two-thirds of Mrs. Clinton’s 34 percent statewide vote share.

Democrats can hope for higher black turnout, but they’ve struggled to mobilize black voters without Barack Obama on the ballot in recent elections.

It’s tough enough to carry a state where your party’s presidential candidate lost by 28 points. It’s about one-third harder if you’ve already maximized your vote share among a quarter of the electorate.

In part for that reason, Alabama’s election results are among the most stable in the country. Since 1984, Alabama has swung less between presidential elections than any other state, moving an average of just 4.8 points from the prior presidential result. Alabama also has the third-lowest average share of third-party votes in the country in presidential elections since 1980, which may be a rough measure of the strength of partisan allegiances.

A reason that Alabama might be tougher still for Democrats is that its staunchly conservative white voters are particularly tough to persuade. White evangelical Christians represent about half of Alabama’s electorate, according to exit polls, and more than 90 percent of them probably supported Mr. Trump.

There’s no way to be sure that it’s harder to persuade a white evangelical Christian in the racially polarized South than a less religious, white voter in the North. But almost all of the states that have recently elected senators against the grain of a state’s partisan lean look nothing like Alabama. Those states — like Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, Massachusetts, Alaska and West Virginia — are among the whitest in the country. All have below-average levels of evangelical Christians, and several have a recent track record of voting for the other party in statewide contests. These same white, Northern, less religious states always top the list of the highest tallies for third-party candidates, and usually have above-average swings in presidential elections as well.

It’s not easy to come up with recent favorable precedents for Democratic victories in the Deep South. Perhaps the best involves David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican who managed to lose the governor’s race by 12 points in 2015. Mr. Obama lost Louisiana by 17 points in 2012. Mr. Vitter was dogged by a prostitution scandal from nearly a decade earlier.

Another promising precedent for Democrats happens to be Mr. Moore himself. He won by only four points in his 2012 campaign for Alabama chief justice, and that was without the sexual harassment allegations that have shaken his current Senate campaign. It was the worst performance by an Alabama Republican running for statewide office since 2008.

Black voters represented a larger share of the election in both of these contests than they have in the post-Obama era, so one might assume that Democrats would fare a couple of points worse with today’s turnout patterns.

Even so, Democrats fared well even though neither Mr. Vitter nor Mr. Moore in 2012 was as weak as Mr. Moore is today. Now, national political conditions are plainly more favorable for the Democrats. And this is a special election, when surprising results are a little more common.

But Republicans can take hope because neither of these precedents was a federal election. That makes a big difference. Historically, the relationship between governors’ election results and presidential vote choice is quite weak relative to federal elections and presidential vote choice.

Democrats also ran more moderate candidates in those races. John Bel Edwards, now governor of Louisiana, ran against Mr. Vitter as a pro-gun, anti-abortion Democrat. Mr. Moore’s 2012 opponent, Circuit Judge Bob Vance, consistently characterized himself as a moderate without taking positions on hot-button issues.

Mr. Jones, on the other hand, lists his support for Planned Parenthood on his website, and doesn’t support a ban on abortions after 20 weeks — the sort of issue that might play a prominent role in the final month of the campaign.

Whether Mr. Moore will have the resources necessary to appeal to Alabama’s deep conservatism is an open question. Even if he does, it’s possible that the allegations against him are just bad enough to ensure defeat.

But if Mr. Moore does have the money and the opening to make the case that Mr. Jones is too liberal, I wouldn’t count him out.


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