On Tuesday, Democrat Doug Jones pulled off a stunning victory over Republican Roy Moore in Alabama. The race went down to the wire, but the Democrat prevailed.
Here are five things to know about why Jones won, why Moore lost, and what it means for the future of the U.S. Senate and both parties.
1. Character matters.
According to NBC News exit polls, 49 percent of Alabama voters thought the sexual assault accusations against Roy Moore were “definitely” or “probably” true. Republicans and Democrats split on partisan lines — a whopping 82 percent of Republicans said the allegations were “probably” or “definitely” false, while 89 percent of Democrats said they were “probably” or “definitely” true.
Exit polls suggested that Jones didn’t win because Republicans switched sides — he won because Democrats voted while Republicans stayed home. Specifically, African-American turnout reached 30 percent, on par with the Obama surge in 2008 and 2012.
Jones underperformed his benchmark in Perry County, part of Alabama’s “Black Belt,” but turnout was relatively high — 76 percent of the 2016 numbers. Meanwhile, a heavily pro-Moore county like Houston had only 58 percent of 2016 turnout.
The Republicans who did turn up at the polls didn’t think Moore was guilty of sexual assault against a teenage girl when he was in his 30s, but the ones who stayed home likely did.
Many Republicans may have taken comfort in the fact that at least one of Moore’s accusers admitted to tampering with a key piece of evidence — a yearbook signature that she originally claimed came entirely from Moore. Even so, this seemingly proved insufficient to assuage doubts.
Moore’s denials failed to pass muster, and that likely cost him big time. The Republican also dialed back his campaign appearances after the allegations, which sent the wrong message.
It did not help that many Republicans came forward suggesting that the sexual advances of which Moore was accused were not that serious. Most notoriously, Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler compared Moore’s alleged sexual advances on teenagers to the relationship of Joseph and Mary.
The biggest weakness for Republicans going forward may be the accusations of sexual assault against President Donald Trump. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) have already jumped on the issue, and Moore’s loss will make Democrats smell blood in the water.
2. Steve Bannon’s populism won’t work.
“This is a brutal reminder that candidate quality matters regardless of where you are running,” Senate Leadership Fund President and CEO Steven Law said in a statement Tuesday night. “Not only did Steve Bannon cost us a critical Senate seat in one of the most Republican states in the country, but he also dragged the President of the United States into his fiasco.”
Law hit on an important feature in the race. Breitbart executive chairman and former Trump senior counsel Steven Bannon endorsed Moore early and in opposition to acting Senator Luther Strange. Bannon hailed Moore’s victory in the Republican primary as a win for Trump-style populism.
From the start, Moore appealed to evangelical Christian voters, but he often went off the deep end. Moore championed pro-life and pro-family issues, but he also suggested that Muslims should not be able to serve in Congress, that all the Constitutional amendments after the 10th had caused needless trouble, and that natural law should take precedence over the Constitution.
Moore’s record on opposing same-sex marriage inspired evangelical voters, and may have helped him prevail in the primary had both Trump and Bannon not taken part. Bannon’s endorsement helped to balance Trump’s endorsement of Luther Strange, however, so it likely was pivotal for Moore’s victory.
The sexual assault allegations, which dropped in early November, suggested that Bannon had not adequately vetted Moore before endorsing him. Moore flatly denied the allegations, but he did not do so in a way that set concerns to rest.
The most remarkable thing about the whole story is how quickly the allegations came out, after decades of silence. If Moore is guilty, he should have been more forthcoming with Bannon at the beginning of the race, and Bannon should have distanced himself. If Moore is innocent, he should have flatly denied even knowing these women, rather than admitting he may have forgotten dating teenage girls while he was in his thirties.
The candidate’s extreme stances and compromised character likely kept tens of thousands of Republicans away from the polls Tuesday, and Steve Bannon bears a great deal of the responsibility for selecting and promoting Moore.
Indeed, CNN’s Jim Acosta quoted a source close to the White House who said “‘the president has egg on his face’ because of Bannon.”
Source close to WH: "It's devastating for the president… this is an earthquake… Virginia but on steroids… the president has egg on his face" because of Bannon.
— Jim Acosta (@Acosta) December 13, 2017
3. Write-ins could have decided the race.
The race came so close, write-in ballots could have decided Jones’ victory. Jones won with 49.9 percent of the vote, 671,151 votes. Moore still took 48.4 percent of the vote, 650,436 votes. A full 22,819 votes went to write-in candidates. It may be unreasonable to suggest every write-in voter might have pulled the lever for Moore, but if they had, the Republican would have won.
Jones, a former prosecutor best known for prosecuting two Ku Klux Klansmen responsible for bombing Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, presented himself as a reconciliatory figure. He pledged to work with Senator Richard Shelby (R-Al.). He even took a moderate stance on the Second Amendment, and came across to many as a better gun enthusiast than Roy Moore.
Ultimately, the race was not about Jones. Prominent Republicans even supported his campaign, merely as a way to distance the party from Moore after the sexual assault allegations.
“Roy Moore in the US Senate would be a stain on the GOP and on the nation,” tweeted former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. “Leigh Corfman [a woman who accused Moore of feeling her up while she was 14 years old] and other victims are courageous heroes. No vote, no majority is worth losing our honor, our integrity.”
Roy Moore in the US Senate would be a stain on the GOP and on the nation. Leigh Corfman and other victims are courageous heroes. No vote, no majority is worth losing our honor, our integrity.
— Mitt Romney (@MittRomney) December 4, 2017
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) tweeted a photo of a contribution to Jones’ campaign, with the caption, “Country over Party.”
Country over Party pic.twitter.com/JZMTaEYdxQ
— Jeff Flake (@JeffFlake) December 5, 2017
Nevertheless, as President Trump tweeted, “Republicans will have another shot at this seat in a very short period of time. It never ends!”
Congratulations to Doug Jones on a hard fought victory. The write-in votes played a very big factor, but a win is a win. The people of Alabama are great, and the Republicans will have another shot at this seat in a very short period of time. It never ends!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 13, 2017
4. McConnell and establishment Republicans dodged a bullet.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) urged Moore to step aside after the sexual assault allegations. As late as Tuesday, McConnell remained confident the U.S. Senate Ethics Committee would investigate the allegations against Moore should he win the election. There was a great deal of speculation as to whether, if Moore won, the Senate would even admit him.
Senate Republicans feverishly scheduled a meeting for 10 a.m. Wednesday to discuss the issue, should Moore prevail.
Indeed, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) announced that he would resign from the Senate last week, in what many interpreted as a ploy to make the Democratic Party seem more morally pure than the Republican Party.
Moore’s loss frees the GOP from the albatross of having a senator with these sorts of charges against him. Had he won, Democrats would have used Moore as a symbol of alleged pedophilia with which to smear the GOP.
“I am so incredibly thankful for the Alabama conservatives who said no tonight. They said they have a higher standard for their leaders,” National Review Institute Senior Fellow David French tweeted. “Now, time to make sure Doug Jones is limited to his half-term. Let’s find a conservative man or woman of integrity to take him down.”
I am so incredibly thankful for the Alabama conservatives who said no tonight. They said they have a higher standard for their leaders. Now, time to make sure Doug Jones is limited to his half-term. Let’s find a conservative man or woman of integrity to take him down.
— David French (@DavidAFrench) December 13, 2017
The Jones win may prove a long-term strategic asset for the Republican Party, because Jones will be up for re-election in 2020. His victory may also give Democrats false hope that they need not alter their platform to win in the future.
“Lots of Democrats now concluding that the party doesn’t need to change anything, assuming all races going forward will feature the worst candidate Republicans could possibly nominate,” former Red State writer Dan McLaughlin tweeted.
Lots of Democrats now concluding that the party doesn't need to change anything, assuming all races going forward will feature the worst candidate Republicans could possibly nominate.
— Dan McLaughlin (@baseballcrank) December 13, 2017
Indeed, former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton seemed to encourage this mindset. She tweeted, “if Democrats can win in Alabama, we can — and must — compete everywhere. Onward!”
Tonight, Alabama voters elected a senator who'll make them proud.
And if Democrats can win in Alabama, we can — and must — compete everywhere.
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) December 13, 2017
Republicans have their work cut out for them, but it may be better to start from a clean slate.
5. The Senate is not necessarily in play for 2018.
Perhaps the most common “hot take” from Jones’ victory was the claim that it puts the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate in serious jeopardy.
“Senate in 2018 is definitely in play now,” tweeted FiveThirtyEight forecaster Harry Enten.
Senate in 2018 is definitely in play now.
— (((Harry Enten))) (@ForecasterEnten) December 13, 2017
Howard Dean, former head of the Democratic National Committee, agreed. “This puts the US Senate in play in 2018. NEVER EVER GIVE UP ON ANY STATE,” Dean tweeted.
This puts the US Senate in play in 2018. NEVER EVER GIVE UP ON ANY STATE
— Howard Dean (@GovHowardDean) December 13, 2017
Respectfully, I disagree. Enten admitted this would be a high bar: Democrats would need to hold on to every seat and take Arizona and Nevada. This is not impossible, but it remains exceedingly unlikely.
Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) will seek re-election, and the polls are close between him and likely Democrat Jacky Rosen. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) will not run for re-election. Democrat Kyrsten Sinema leads Republican frontrunner Kelli Ward, but last month Rep. Martha McSally announced she would run against Ward in the primary.
In Florida, Sen. Bill Nelson (D) faces a likely challenge from Governor Rick Scott, and Democrats are scrambling to raise money for this “battle of titans.” Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) is running in another state won by Trump, and Cook Political Report has rated it a “toss-up.” Generic Republicans have been polling better than Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) faces a strong challenge from State Sen. Tom Campbell. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) also faces a hard race, and Trump won his state by a whopping 42 points.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) may hold on to his seat, even though Trump won Montana by 20 points. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) also seems likely to defeat likely Republican Josh Mandel, despite Trump winning Ohio by 8 points. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.) will also likely hold his seat (Trump won Pennsylvania by 1 point).
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) is likely safe, as is Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.).
There is a very small outside chance Democrats could win all of these races, but there would be essentially no margin for error. Trump has proven a boon to the Republican National Committee’s coffers, just as the Democrats struggle to raise money.
The Republican lost in Alabama on Tuesday, but this may prove to be a Pyrrhic victory for Democrats moving forward.