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.