Polls have closed in Alabama, and the results are in. It's out with the old and in with the new as Doug Jones pulls out a victory over Roy Moore. But what was at stake in the most prominent special election in years?
First of all, there’s the balance of power in the Senate. Right now, Republicans hold a 52-48 majority, which means that on key legislation (such as the behemoth of a tax bill now being considered), they can only afford to lose two votes, if all Democrats are unified in opposition. If they lose just one vote, two Republicans in opposition along with 49 Democrats would kill such bills. One of those 52 current members is Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL), who was appointed by Gov. Robert Bentley (R-AL) to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions (R-AL) just weeks before Bentley was forced to resign due to a sex scandal. Acceding Gov. Kay Ivey (R-AL), the former lieutenant governor, chose to move the date of the special election to succeed Sessions from November 2018 to December 2017. This allowed voters to have a say in who would replace Sessions for about half of the term to which he was elected in 2014.
In the Republican primary election, Strange faced off against former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore and Congressman Mo Brooks, a member of the Freedom Caucus. Allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) poured millions into the race in an effort to defeat Moore, who was kicked off the bench twice: once in 2003 (3 years after his election in 2000), for ignoring federal court orders to remove a Ten Commandments monument he had had installed, and once in 2016 (4 years after his 2012 reelection), for ordering state probate judges to ignore the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision requiring them to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Despite this, Moore won a plurality of the vote, forcing him and Strange into a September runoff. Moore won the runoff by nearly ten points.
The Democratic primary election featured a handful of unknowns and Doug Jones, the former Clinton-appointed US Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. Jones is best known for reopening the cold case of the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombings and securing convictions against the bombers. He’s also prosecuted a host of other domestic terrorists. Jones won handily.
In the general election, Jones and Moore started off much closer in polls than would be expected for Alabama, one of the states where President Trump performed best in last year’s election. Moore was already known to be far more vulnerable than the average Republican in the state, having won reelection as chief justice 51%-48% against an unheralded state circuit court judge even as Mitt Romney (R-UT) trounced Barack Obama (D-IL) 60%-38% in Obama’s reelection race. It was widely believed that Moore would pull out a decent margin of victory, but then allegations against him started crashing down.
Eight women have come forward and accused Moore of sexual misconduct and assault, all of which would have occurred when he was in his thirties and they in their teens. The most egregious case involved a then-14-year-old girl. Moore has also made controversial comments on 9/11, saying it was punishment for America’s lack of morality, and slavery, saying life was better when we had slavery, because families stayed together and cared for each other, among a decades-long history of offensive remarks. Despite a chorus of Republican voices asking Moore to drop out or expel him from the Senate if elected, he retains the support of the RNC and President Trump, who’s issued multiple full-throated endorsements in recent days.
Who will be victorious in this wild rollercoaster ride of a Senate race comes down to several factors: how many of Alabama’s black voters, who are a quarter of the population and are 90%+ Democratic turn out, how many discouraged conscientious conservatives stay home or vote for a “principled Republican” as a write-in (such as Alabama’s other Senator, Richard Shelby [R-AL]), and how many Republicans actually cross over and vote for Jones. The final polls of the race ranged from a Moore 9-point blowout to a Jones 10-point blowout, so anything is possible. However, Moore retains a 2.3% lead in the RealClearPolitics polling average, and given the fundamentals of the state and the race, he is more likely than not to win. Jones has polled at up to 16% of Republicans, 50% of independents, and 33% of whites. These numbers are a recipe for victory and should give Democrats hope, but it remains to be seen if those numbers are achieved.
What it all comes down to is this: are Alabama’s overwhelmingly Republican voters, in a state where no Democrat has won statewide or even cracked 40% of the vote since 2008, going to be compelled to vote for a man who has sent terrorists to prison over a man who is credibly accused of molesting teenagers?