Tonight in Alabama, Democrat Doug Jones beat Republican Roy Moore in a dramatic race for US Senate. After zigzagging the state in a final rush of campaigning, Jones pulled off a nail-biting victory after a lurid election season that captured national attention. Since 2010, when Alabama Democrats lost the majority in the state legislature, the Democratic Party has struggled to revive itself. Today’s outcome showed Democrats down South have a pulse.
Although an Alabama Democrat hadn’t been elected to the Senate in a quarter-century, politicos began mapping Jones’s path to flipping the seat during the primary, because even here, in one of the most deeply red states, the evangelical and staunchly conservative Moore is a contentious figure for his defiance of the law and radical beliefs. The former chief justice, who was removed from the state’s highest court twice for refusing to enforce the law, was the candidate Democrats hoped would win during the primary: Because Moore is so radical, they believed they’d finally have a shot at the seat.
Moore was beatable. And Jones was the only guy to beat him.
The race was competitive long before The Washington Post reported accusations from women who say Moore sexually harassed or assaulted them when they were teenagers. It was competitive because Jones is a white, churchgoing Bama boy with blue-collar roots who worked as a staffer for the last Democratic senator, Howell Heflin, before going on to serve as US Attorney. He was thus the kind of guy moderates might cross over for. It was competitive because Jones prosecuted the klansmen who bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, launching a platform for him to talk about justice and equity across the country.
But the Jones campaign faced a strategy problem that’s plaguing Democrats nationally, and has been for a long time. Democrats need black-voter turnout to win in swing states, and they definitely need black turnout down South. Make no mistake: They need whites, too. Even when they’re not spelling it out explicitly, Democrats often distance themselves from black voters until it’s time to remind them of their so-called patriotic duty. Farai Chideya of FiveThirtyEight explains it as the “captured group theory”: Democrats, particularly white moderates like Doug Jones, figure black voters are essentially a captive audience that would never vote for Republicans, so they focus their energy on persuading white swing voters, sometimes at the direct expense of their only loyal base.
Despite his focus in speeches and interviews on across-the-aisle “kitchen-table issues” like jobs, education, and health care, Jones catered heavily to white voters in his advertising. He ran ads featuring testimonials from crossover Republicans, quotes from Ivanka Trump, who said she believed Moore’s accusers, and a revisionist Civil War lesson from Jones himself in a spot that called for political compromise over hostility and division. For black voters, though, the campaign sent mailers featuring photos of the four black girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church and a flyer featuring a young black guy giving the side-eye with a single question: “Think if a black man went after high school girls anyone would try to make him a senator?” The backlash was immediate—“The flyer is reductive in its oversimplification of the black mind as only caring about black issues,” Michael Harriot wrote in The Root—and pointed to the party’s bigger problem: the ongoing exploitation of black voters.
“On the rare occasions when the Democratic Party does address black voters, it only talks about the ‘black issues’: policing, mass incarceration, civil rights, etc,” Harriot wrote. “For the party leadership, black people aren’t whole people who have the same concerns about taxes, job creation, education initiatives, international policy and economics as other voters. They are simply bodies collected in the coffers of the party’s ineffective longing for power.”
Two weeks before the election, I spent a Sunday afternoon driving through the working-class neighborhoods of Gadsden, Roy Moore’s hometown. Once a thriving industrial rivertown, Gadsden’s population has been declining for decades. Small businesses, churches, and discount stores line the town’s highways. More than half of its residents are white. More than a quarter live in poverty. I’d expected to see a lot of support for Moore, but the only political sign I spotted was for Jones. When I stopped to talk to folks, mostly I encountered apathy. Nearly a dozen people—white, black, women, men—told me they weren’t really following the race. I couldn’t tell if locals were simply looking for a way out of a charged encounter or sick of the media poking around.
Apathy in Alabama politics runs rampant these days as political corruption has tainted every branch of government. In recent years, the governor was impeached and resigned after a sex scandal (his own wife was the whistleblower), the speaker of the House was indicted on 23 felony charges, and Moore himself was ousted from office for defying the Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage. (The first time he was removed from the court’s highest bench for refusing to take down statues of the 10 Commandments from a courthouse.) Even as this special election captured the attention of the nation, many Alabamians figured it was politics as usual, and tuned out.
I’d nearly given up hope of finding an engaged voter in Gadsden when I stopped at the Shiloh Baptist Church. Outside a red brick chapel, EuGenie Thornton-Latham, a public-school educator from nearby Anniston, was visiting with two friends after their church service. All three of the women are black and work (or worked) in education. All three were skeptical when I walked up, eventually saying that white people sometimes wander into the parking lot mistakenly, looking for drugs. When I asked if they were following the election, there was a collective sigh.
“I don’t want to say it’s a racist state, but it’s a racist state,” Thornton-Latham told me. “It’s not for African Americans or Blacks to prosper.” Black residents make up 27 percent of Alabama’s population. Black children are twice as likely to live in poverty, and black people are twice as likely to be imprisoned.
Black voters, they said, often feel like pawns.
T. Marie King, an activist in Birmingham who specializes in racial reconciliation and healing, put it this way: “The Democratic Party—they always reach out to the black community when they need the black vote.” But the party doesn’t maintain contact after elections, failing to show people if and how their vote “moved the needle” on progress, she said.
The women at Shiloh Baptist were tired of that feeling. Tonya Latham, a former schoolteacher who now works as a musician at a church, likened the local attitude toward the Black community to similar problems during the presidential election. “Hillary Clinton took for granted that she was going to waltz right in there because we had this idiot running for the president,” she said.
This special election felt like “the same thing” to Brittany Ware, who teaches at Head Start in Anniston. “Same script, different cast,” she said. Ware made a point of saying she was disgusted by Moore’s politics and believed his accusers. Still, she called the election “lose-lose.” She was planning to cast a vote for Jones, but reluctantly. Ware said Jones missed a chance to connect on issues important to black voters like education. Instead, she felt like Jones had one refrain: “Black people, vote for me because I prosecuted the KKK.” Ware didn’t trust the message coming out of the campaign or appreciate its repeated use of the four dead girls for political gain. (The Jones campaign did not respond to requests to discuss race-related criticisms.)
The women talked about the ways parents at their schools struggle to transition off of government support when their wages disqualify them for help but leave them struggling to make ends meet. “There needs to be a program in place…so they can get off of assistance and flourish like we do,” Ware said.
In the weeks leading up to the election, some placed the burden of a Democratic victory on the shoulders of black voters, who make up half of the Democratic base in Alabama. “It’s always our fault. It’s our fault Trump is the president of the United States,” said Thornton-Latham. Local black leaders, though, asked that the election not be considered a referendum on the black vote. The women at Shiloh Baptist wondered why low turnout would be considered a failure of the people, not the party. The Jones campaign reported its team would make contact five or six times with all likely African American voters, but of the three women at Shiloh Baptist, only Thornton-Latham had been contacted by anyone regarding voting—she said she received one text but preferred a more personal, face-to-face interaction.
Democratic organizing in Alabama has been in decline for years, and it shows. David Mowery, a political consultant in Montgomery, told me that Alabama had a robust Democratic coalition that fell apart after the 2010 midterm. “You had a Democrat on the Supreme Court. You had a Democrat as the lieutenant governor. You had three of seven Democratic congressmen,” Mowery said. “They lost everything but one Congress member.” For the first time 136 years, Republicans took both houses of the state legislature. Black political groups like the Alabama Democratic Conference and the Jefferson County Citizens Coalition that were once a major force in state elections eventually lost resources and ultimately power, as Mother Jones recently reported. As a result, Democratic candidates lost their influence.
Despite running on a liberal platform in line with the DNC’s priorities, Jones and the DNC spent the race like middle schoolers in an arm’s-length dance, awkwardly relying on one another for support without claiming the other with any conviction in order to avoid the appearance of outside influence. In November, Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said at a news conference, “It’s an Alabama race,” and said national Democratic groups had not spent a dollar on advertising for Jones. The candidate himself cancelled major events that would have put him in the same room as Democratic bigshots, and until the final week of the campaign, Jones only allowed a couple of the party’s most beloved members, Joe Biden and John Lewis, to stump for him.
Barbara Caddell is the chairperson for the League of Women Voters of Alabama, a nonpartisan group that has provided voter information to Alabamians for nearly a century. “Anytime you want to influence the South,” she said, “you have to tread carefully.”
Jones did rely heavily on outside support from small donors for his own fundraising. By late last month, Jones had raised $11.5 million versus Moore’s $5.2 million and outspent Moore by $4.6 million. Much of this support came from people outside Alabama like Martha Browning, a 54-year-old Los Angeles mother, who used Facebook to find organizations that were sending money directly to the Jones campaign. “What happens in this race affects the entire country,” she said in an e-mail. Across the country, organizations raised money to defeat Moore. The DNC, Indivisible, One Nation United, Color of Change, and others sent e-mails to supporters. Democrats like Tim Kaine, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Kirsten Gillibrand enlisted their supporters to help Jones, too.
A huge amount of money has been funneled to Alabama through Highway 31, a Birmingham-based Super PAC that spent $4 million on advertisements for Jones, including a TV spot called “Shopping Mall” that explicitly called out Moore for soliciting sex from minors. Highway 31 also brought controversy: One of their ads was removed from Google for falsely claiming voting records would be public, and the group used a legal loophole to conceal their donors’ identities. On December 11, the Highway 31 Donors were revealed by Politico to be primarily two large Democratic SuperPACs: Senate Majority PAC and Priorities USA Action (the main super PAC behind Hillary Clinton’s election campaign).
While money has poured into the state, other kinds of support have been less forthcoming. According to Janet May, the chair of the Montgomery County Democratic Conference (MCDC), “At our last DNC meeting in October, the plan was to move the boots on the ground from Virginia and New Jersey to Alabama as soon as those elections were over.” May said Jaime Harrison called a few weeks later, promising she’d be hearing from national leaders about the increased manpower for canvassing.
In mid November, May hadn’t heard anything else. But when I followed up with May a few days before the election, she told me that during a recent DNC conference call a few party liaisons announced they were in Birmingham and offered a 20-minute pep talk to local organizers. May said a pep rally wasn’t what local organizers needed. What they needed was cooperation and support.
She told me that “the national party has been so removed from Alabama, it’s not even a distant cousin,” arguing that the DNC often ignores the needs of Southern states. Locals in the party wondered if the DNC would even show up for a state that outsiders often consider backwards or a lost cause. When Moore won the September runoff, defeating the incumbent, both the DNC and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said they weren’t sure if they should invest in the race or how much help they’d be to Jones. May complained that Southerners on the DNC “beat our heads against the wall” when in need of help with voter outreach. “It’s self-defeating to ignore the South,” May said.
May canvassed black and rural voters herself beginning in August. She personally knocked on doors in rural precincts, because, as she said, “That’s really where the lack of information is so critical. People out in the rural area are not aware that elections are coming up and certainly don’t know who’s on the ballot.
In the end, the campaign relied on an influx of outside money to compensate for the attenuated state of local infrastructure. The DNC was of little help filling the volunteer gap.
Door-to-door canvassing is still one of any campaign’s most powerful political tools. In October, Birmingham’s new mayor, Randall Woodfin, proved a strong ground game could topple better-positioned opponents. In a yearlong grassroots effort, Woodfin’s campaign knocked on 50,000 doors in Birmingham, Alabama, developing his platform, in part, from conversations with voters. Woodfin beat incumbent and fellow Democrat William Bell by 17 points, including winning the former mayor’s home district.
“Consider what we did,” Woodfin told me in an interview I conducted for In These Times. “Out of 69 precincts, we won 57. That is every generation. That’s boomer, X, Y. That’s black, white. That’s homeowner. That’s renter. That’s public housing. That’s everything in between. We won the entire city: north, south, east, west. It was a sweep. That’s overwhelming. We didn’t leave one voter group on the table.”
Of course, the races are different. Birmingham is a blue city in a red state. Still, Woodfin’s underdog campaign contains lessons for Alabama Democrats: His messaging stuck to the issues, no matter the audience, and was delivered mostly face-to-face. “TV’s important. Radio’s important, but that’s the aerosol. That should be in support of your ground game,” Woodfin said. Woodfin’s former field operations director said the campaign spoke face-to-face with 20,000 people, and won the election with 24,000 votes out of 42,000 cast.
The suddenly competitive nature of the Senate race has spurred activity which could lay the groundwork for greater engagement in the future. The Jones campaign said it did run the “most robust Get-Out-The-Vote program Alabama has seen in a generation,” having knocked on more than 100,000 doors and made 800,000 phone calls, according to a statement released by campaign spokesperson Sebastian Kitchen. There was at least one national group in Alabama before the election—the Black Progressive Action Coalition (BPAC), which sent canvassers to knock on doors throughout the state. Initially, BPAC delivered party-free Get Out the Vote literature, but last week they changed course and began directly supporting Doug Jones. Nonpartisan organization and grassroots groups like Faith in Action, Greater Birmingham Ministries, and Vote or Die ran nonpartisan voter turnout operations across the state.
Whether that fire will continue to burn tomorrow remains to be seen.