Democrats have in recent decades developed a spotty record of waging serious Senate races in what was once the party’s “solid South.” Since Strom Thurmond, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan lured the region to the Republican ballot line with coded messages that were intended to exploit the racial divisions that President Lyndon Johnson sought to address when he signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, it is no secret that Democrats have had a harder and harder time gaining traction in the states of the Deep South.
The party has not won a contest for an open Senate seat in the region for years. In many states, it has struggled to recruit credible candidates. Indeed, things were so bad in 2014 that it barely made an effort to defend its last incumbent in the region, then–Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, in the runoff election that ultimately turned her out of office. “They just walked away from this race,” said Landrieu as she strove to retain a historically Democratic seat.
After Landrieu was defeated, a New York Times headline read: “Demise of the Southern Democrat Is Now Nearly Complete.”
So when Alabama Democrats and supporters of the national party’s old “50-state strategy” started arguing over the summer that Democrats needed to get serious about the race to fill the Alabama US Senate seat that had been vacated by the region’s most lamentable contribution to the Trump cabinet—Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III—the notion was not universally embraced. Yes, the Democratic nominee for the seat was an impressive man: Doug Jones, a former federal prosecutor with deep roots in the state and impeccable law-enforcement credentials. But was Alabama really ready to elect a candidate who proudly prosecuted the extremists who targeted abortion clinics and went after the racists who were responsible for the 1963 bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham?
Now, however, the Alabama seat is clearly in play; not because the state is veering left (even if the results of the recent mayoral race in Birmingham represent an encouraging embrace of progressivism) but because the Republicans nominated a horrible person as their candidate to fill the Sessions seat.
Judge Roy Moore was the worst of the worst—a lawless scoundrel who kept getting bumped off the state’s high court—even before he was accused this week of molesting teenage girls. With the shocking news reports that Moore “made sexual or romantic overtures to [girls] when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s,” national Republicans who retain a shred of conscience are calling for their party’s nominee in Alabama’s December 12 special election to quit the contest.
“If these allegations are true, he must step aside,” Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said after The Washington Post published a story based on interviews with women who recalled the days when a 30-something Moore was on the prowl for young girls in the late 1970s and early ’80s.
Moore is not about to quit this contest. This scandal-plagued candidate is used to being controversial, and he has trained Alabama Republicans to distrust not just the news media that report on him but also the Republican establishment that sometimes objects to him. Moore is going to keep on running, issuing carefully worded denials of his sordid past, echoing Donald Trump’s talk about “fake news,” and enjoying the support of prominent Republican officials like Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler, who has offered a biblical defense of Moore: “Zechariah was extremely old to marry Elizabeth and they became the parents of John the Baptist. Also take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus.”
“There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here,” drawls Zeigler. “Maybe just a little bit unusual.”
On the chance that a silent majority of Alabama voters might think that what’s going on with Moore is more than “just a little bit unusual,” what was already a competitive race is going to become the most intense special election for a US Senate seat in years. It will matter even more because of the narrow divide within the Senate, where Republicans have the advantage but must wrestle with dissension within their caucus. The combination of factors could make the Alabama contest one of the most politically dynamic Senate special elections in decades—perhaps since the contest 60 years ago that flipped the late Senator Joe McCarthy’s Wisconsin seat to insurgent Democrat Bill Proxmire, in a result that solidified Democratic control of the Senate and that moved the Senate Democratic Caucus to the left as the chamber was about to take final action on the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
At this point, national Democrats have to get serious about the Alabama contest. They can’t play on the margins or hope to sneak up on Moore and the Republicans. This race is going to be a top news story from now until December 12. Moore will claim that Democrats in Washington are out to get him, no matter what Democrats in Washington do. So they might as well do something.
But what? Should they throw everything they’ve got into a campaign against Roy Moore? No, they should throw everything they’ve got into a campaign for Doug Jones.
The Democratic nominee for the Alabama Senate seat is a strikingly qualified and able contender. A former United States Attorney and onetime staff counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee, he has decades of legal and political experience in Alabama. And Jones has a record of personal accomplishment and moral commitment that stands in stark contrast to Moore’s dismal story.
The Democrat is best known for his efforts in the late 1990s and early 2000s to finally achieve a measure of justice in the case of the September 15, 1963, Birmingham bombing that left four little girls—Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair—dead in their church. Jones is credited with playing an essential role in winning murder convictions against two of the killers almost 40 years after the bombing—and after many other attempts to hold the racists to account had failed. Frequently honored for his work on not just civil-rights cases but also cases involving women’s rights, workers’ rights, and the environment, Jones is hailed by Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and author Diane McWhorter as “bold and aggressive, but also willing to take a risk to be on the right side of history.”
Polls taken since the Republican runoff primary that nominated Moore have shown the race to be competitive. Moore’s generally been ahead, but not generally by much. And the latest revelations, along with the prospect that there may be more trouble for the Republican, make this is going to be a real race in a deep-red state.
Jones said before the latest stories about Moore broke, “I think the people in this state are looking at themselves and are saying, ‘we’re tired of being embarrassed.’”
If Doug Jones is right about his native state’s capacity for embarrassment, then Democrats in Alabama and across the country have every reason—and every responsibility—to make a major play for Alabama this fall. But that play should not be so focused on the embarrassment that is Roy Moore. It should be focused on telling Alabamans of all that Doug Jones has done to make them proud.