If Democrats are still looking at Doug Jones’s win in Alabama as a watershed moment for America turning blue—and given Hillary Clinton’s comments on Ellen that she’s “a little tiny less concerned after Alabama”, many are—they need to pump the brakes. What happened in the Heart of Dixie, while encouraging for the left, should be viewed for what it is: an anomaly. As the 2018 midterms approach, the question now is whether it’s an anomaly that can be duplicated.
On some level, the Alabama election was 2017’s version of Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton. The main difference, and it’s an important one for Democrats to remember, is that only one of the candidates in Bama was divisive. Where Roy Moore was a lightning rod and disruptive force within the GOP, Jones was able to maintain a moderate, balanced approach and a message that didn’t split his own party’s base.
This is the antithesis of last year’s presidential election, which pitted two candidates who were disliked equally by many within their own factions. The division of the nation was glaring in the results, with Clinton winning the popular vote by three million and Trump taking the electoral college by 77. The election in Alabama, on the contrary, presented a clear and absolute choice to voters across party lines and galvanized previously tepid Southern Democrats to show up at the polls.
Moore was a troubled candidate from the beginning. Alabama voters had remained lukewarm on his campaigns for some time and after the sexual misconduct allegations struck, he had real problems. Yet even before his nomination, many within the state saw trouble looming. Democrats—and even some Republicans—knew that there were issues, from a string of scandals involving state Republicans, the rawness of the 2016 vote, Trump’s rocky first year in office, his tumultuous relationship with local hero Jeff Sessions and even the reasons for this special election in the first place.
The most prominent takeaway for Democrats should be that your chances increase drastically when you have the right candidate.
Having grown up in Alabama, I spent quite a bit of time working in and around politics there. What I thought was impossible became more likely the more I talked to people from my home state. Democrats were excited, and even though they wouldn’t admit it, Republicans were worried. There was an overwhelming sense that something big was going on and if the cards were played correctly, change was possible.
The most prominent takeaway for Democrats from 2017’s most publicized election should be that your chances increase drastically when you have the right candidate. Simply running on the “us against them” platform, as Clinton did, doesn’t work when you are trying to win a hostile territory. You can’t just say your candidate is different; he or she has to prove it, motivating both traditional Democrats and moderate Republicans. Doug Jones did that well—but his opponent made it easier.
Several races in 2018 will feature a polarizing, Steve Bannon-christened Republican in “safe” GOP areas. The anomaly can and will repeat itself if Democrats select the right candidates and prepare solid ground games. Places like Arizona and Texas have Senate seats that are genuinely in play because of the distaste of the Republican candidates, such as Tennessee Republican Bob Corker, who is already facing seven challengers from his own party.
The test for Democrats in 2018 is whether or not they will be able to identify the most promising races early enough to strike. Alabama proved to the nation that Democrats can win anywhere. Now we get to see if the Democratic National Committee was paying attention.