How Doug Jones Won and the Takeaway for Democrats

AP Photo/John Bazemore

Senator-elect Doug Jones is greeted by a supporter before speaking during an election-night watch party in Birmingham

In his victory speech Tuesday night, Doug Jones made sure to wish his Jewish supporters a “Happy Hanukkah.” His stunning victory over Roy Moore for the U.S. Senate seat from Alabama coincided with the first night of what Jews call the Festival of Lights. The holiday celebrates the Jews’ triumph over a tyrant king and the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem. As the story goes, they only had enough oil to light the temple’s lamp for one day, but the oil lasted a full eight days. During the holiday, Jews play with a four-sided spinning top called a dreidel, whose Hebrew letters represent the saying, “A great miracle happened there.”

Many voters and pundits think that a great miracle happened in Alabama on Tuesday. Who can blame them? Jones is the first Democrat to win a U.S. Senate race in Alabama in 25 years. Even a month ago, a Jones victory seemed like an incredible long shot. Clearly President Trump’s political advisors believed that Jones couldn’t win, or else they wouldn’t have persuaded the president, who hates associating himself with “losers,” not only to endorse but also to enthusiastically campaign and Tweet on Moore’s behalf.

Once part of the Democratic “solid South,” a bastion of Jim Crow segregation, Alabama began shifting toward the Republican Party in the wake of the civil rights movement and became a Republican stronghold. Alabama’s current senior senator, Richard Shelby, was initially elected in 1986 as a Democrat, but in 1994, two years into his second term, he switched parties.

The last time Alabamans elected a Democratic governor was in 1998, when Donald Siegelman won the post and served for four years, losing his re-election bid to Republican Bob Riley in 2002. In 2010, Republicans gained control of both chambers of the state legislature for the first time since 1874. The Republicans currently have a 26-to-seven majority in the state Senate and a 70-to-33 majority in the state House of Representatives. 

Republicans hold six of the state’s seven congressional seats, a triumph of gerrymandering as well as voter preferences. In 2014, Jeff Sessions won re-election to his U.S. Senate seat with 97 percent of the vote. The Democrats didn’t even bother to field a candidate. (Jones won the seat that Sessions vacated after Trump appointed him attorney general.) Last November, Trump won 62 percent of the Alabama vote, while Shelby garnered 64 percent in his Senate re-election contest.

So it is understandable that the idea of a pro-choice Democrat like Jones winning a statewide election might be viewed as miraculous. The former U.S. Attorney is best known for prosecuting the remaining Ku Klux Klan members who bombed Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 that killed four African American girls. He also secured an indictment of Eric Rudolph for bombing a Birmingham abortion clinic in 1998 that killed an off-duty police officer.

Of course, it helped Jones to have a controversial opponent who was accused of child molesting and sexually exploiting teenage girls. But Jones ran an exemplary campaign. The key factors in his victory include the following:

  • African American turnout: According to The Washington Post’s exit polls, an unprecedented turnout among black voters helped catapult Jones to victory. Blacks comprise 26 percent of Alabama’s eligible voters but made up 28 percent of voters in Tuesday’s election. Turnout was particularly robust in the counties with the largest black populations. 

The high turnout helped Jones: 96 percent of black voters supported the Democratic candidate, slightly higher than the 95 percent who embraced President Obama in 2012. The cities of Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham, as well as rural Lowndes County—each key bastions of the civil rights movement—gave Jones large majorities. Alabama’s racist voting laws have often suppressed the black vote, but one lesson of Jones’s campaign is that Democrats can overcome those obstacles if they invest the time, staff, and money in registering and mobilizing African American voters. 

The NAACP, black churches, and historically black colleges were the core of the mobilization effort, but the Democratic Party put organizers on the ground to support the effort of local black organizations. They registered people with past felonies, people without proper identification cards to get the necessary documents so they could vote, and turned the election into a moral and civil rights crusade.

During the last week of the campaign, Democratic stalwarts Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, and basketball legend Charles Barkley, who attended Alabama’s Auburn University, hit the campaign trail for Jones, while Obama taped a robocall directed at black voters.

  • The write-in vote: Jones’s margin over Moore was 20,715 votes (671,151 to 650,436). There were 22,819 write-in votes. Most of them were Republicans and independents who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Moore. One percent of Republicans and 5 percent of independents wrote in a name other than Moore or Jones, according to The Washington Post exit polls.

The write-in idea got a huge boost from Senator Shelby on Sunday when he urged voters follow his example and write in the name of another Republican other than Moore. “I wouldn't vote for Roy Moore,” Shelby said. “I think the Republican Party can do better.” The large number of Republicans and independents who abandoned Moore in favor of write-in candidates boosted Jones’s chances of victory.

  • Women: The national upsurge of outrage about sexual assault, which has only escalated since the exposure a month ago of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s behavior, clearly had ripple effects in Alabama. Like Weinstein, Moore became a symbol of predatory practices, including the most damning of accusations, pedophilia.

On Tuesday, women supported Jones by a whopping 57-to-42 percent margin, while men gave Moore a 57-to-40 percent edge. (Even among black voters, women were more enthusiastic than men about Jones; 98 percent of black women and 93 percent of black men embraced the Democrat).

College educated white women, who accounted for 14 percent of the total vote, gave Jones 45 percent of their votes and another 3 percent wrote-in other candidates, depriving Moore of their votes. (Only 25 percent of white women who did not graduate from college, who accounted for 17 percent of the vote, supported Moore.)

  • Young voters and college graduates: Jones did particularly well among young voters and voters with college degrees. Overall, 54 percent of college graduates backed Jones, including 40 percent of white voters with college degrees. (Jones garnered 30 percent of the total white vote, twice the 15 percent who voted for Obama). 

White suburban areas, where college-educated voters are more likely to live, shifted dramatically toward Jones compared with their support for Trump last November, a trend that was foreshadowed by the significant number of white suburban women who voted in June for Democrat Jon Ossoff, turning a traditionally Republican House district in the Atlanta suburbs into in battleground.  

Alabama’s college towns are hardly bastions of liberalism like Austin and Ann Arbor, but voters in the areas around the University of Alabama (in Tuscaloosa), the University of South Alabama (in Mobile), Auburn University (in Auburn), and the University of Alabama campus in Huntsville (also the home of NASA’s Space Flight Center) went heavily for Jones.

In the 18 to 44 year old cohort, 61 percent (35 percent of the total turnout) cast their ballots for Jones, according to CNN polls. No one would describe Alabama as a liberal state. In 2016, only 17 percent of Alabama adults identified themselves as liberals, according to the Gallup poll. But in Tuesday’s election, 23 percent of the voters did so. Either the number of liberals is increasing or they are simply more likely to vote. Either way, they helped Jones win in such a close contest.

  • Independent Voters: Many political pundits expected turnout among Republicans, especially in rural areas, to decline because Moore was such a toxic candidate. But apparently the Republican enthusiasm gap didn’t occur. On Tuesday, Republicans accounted for 43 percent of the voters, compared with 37 percent of Democrats.

This figure is comparable to the Republican share of turnout in recent presidential years. Despite, or perhaps because of, his controversial career, including his stands on abortion, gun control, gay rights, religion, the rights of Muslims, and other issues, Moore still had a solid base of support. He garnered 81 percent of white evangelical voters, the same margin that Trump got nationwide last November, despite his own controversial morals. White born-again Christians accounted for 44 percent of all Alabama voters on Tuesday.

Many evangelical leaders endorsed Moore, who laced all of his campaign speeches with Biblical quotes to defend his noxious views. The big difference is that Moore lost the confidence of Alabama’s independent voters, who comprised 21 percent of Tuesday’s turnout. They gave Moore only 43 percent of their votes, compared with 51 percent for Jones and 5 percent for write-in candidates.     

  • Money: Jones raised more than twice as much money as his rival, garnering $11.5 million to Moore’s $5.2 million as of November 22, according to the nonpartisan and nonprofit Center for Responsible Politics. That financial advantage allowed him to flood the state with television and radio ads as well as to hire organizers to register voters and turn them out on Election Day.

He even did much better at attracting money from Alabama residents—$3.9 million to $771,202. Moreover, many more Alabamans contributed to Jones (about 5,000) than to Moore (about 1,000), an indication that the Democratic candidate ran a more robust grassroots campaign. In an interview Tuesday night on MSNBC, former New York Times Executive Editor Howell Raines, an Alabama native, observed that even the state’s business establishment shunned Moore, concerned that his election would tarnish the state’s reputation, hurt tourism, and undermine growing investment by both U.S. and foreign companies.

Both candidates raised the majority of their funds from out-of-state donors, but while Jones raised $7.6 million from outside the state, Moore attracted only $4.4 million. Jones raised $1.6 million from Californians and $1.5 million from New Yorkers. Moore attracted just $289,842 from the blue Golden State, but got only $401,251 from donors in deep red Texas.

Major national GOP donors were ambivalent about Moore’s candidacy as more and more Republican politicians distanced themselves from the controversial former judge. After Trump fully embraced Moore a week before the election, some Republican bigwigs, along with the national party, began to write checks, but it was too little, too late. Meanwhile, the national Democratic Party and liberal and progressive groups like MoveOn, Indivisible, and Planned Parenthood Votes (the group’s political arm) made Jones’s campaign a top priority. 


DEMOCRATS NOW HOPE that they can build on Jones’s victory—and Trump’s embarrassing defeat—to take back the House of Representatives next November. (His victory gives the Democrats 49 seats in the Senate, but the odds of winning a majority in that chamber next year are slimmer). To secure a majority in the House, the Democrats have to gain 24 seats. Six months ago, that seemed impossible. But the number of “swing” House districts now held by Republicans has grown dramatically in that period to more than 50 seats. 

The reasons aren’t mysterious: Trump’s declining approval ratings, the escalating resistance movement, and the rise of groups like Indivisible has emboldened Democrats and liberals. The Democrats’ surprising victories in Virginia last month, winning the governor’s race and making unprecedented gains in the state legislature, suggest that Jones’s triumph isn’t a fluke.

Few Republican candidates will be as toxic as Moore. But the Democrats now believe that the wind is at their backs. Whether they can avoid the infighting that has plagued the party remains to be seen. Democrats need to unite behind a positive message, target battleground races, raise money, nominate compelling candidates, deploy veteran campaign organizers, mobilize volunteers, and excite traditional Democrats as well as independents.

Jones’s triumph, along with recent statewide Democratic victories in Virginia and New Jersey, also remind us that although Trump is president, he hasn’t taken over the nation’s soul. The vast majority of Americans support liberal policy ideas. We are a more decent country than the madman who occupies the White House.

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