The stunning win for Democrat Doug Jones in last week’s Alabama Senate election represents different things to different American political actors. US President Trump, who had held a rally in support of polariSing GOP candidate Roy Moore just before the election, typically blamed everyone but himself.
National Republican leaders seemed to breathe a sigh of relief at Moore’s defeat. They would likely have acquiesced in an unprecedented ethics inquiry into Moore as soon as he took office, given the credible charges against him of inappropriate sexual contact with women and underage girls. The controversial Moore would have remained in the spotlight, giving the Democrats an easy, visible target for their efforts to rally women voters away from Republican candidates next year and potentially in 2020.
For Democrats, Jones’ victory narrows the Republican margin of control in the Senate to 51-49, counting the Independent Bernie Sanders in the Democratic column. Democrats have been able to close ranks and hold together on major votes since Trump was elected and, with a few Republican defections, have managed to defeat repeal of the Affordable Care Act among other defensive legislative triumphs. While Democratic chances of capturing the upper house of the US legislature are problematic next year because of which states are voting for the Senate in 2018, the Jones win certainly makes a Democratic takeover somewhat more likely.
The Alabama result may reveal more significant trends. First, contrary to the expectations of many, black voters turned out in significant numbers for Jones. African-Americans made up 30 percent of Alabama voters in this election, and they really counted. Political strategists in the US have long presumed that in non-presidential election years, blacks would not consistently show up and vote. In Virginia and now Alabama this year, they have defied those expectations.
Given the nature of the Moore candidacy, and especially his dismissive and almost contemptuous denials of the sexual misconduct charges against him, it is not too surprising that women supported his opponent. Especially with suburban white women, who have supported Trump last year and Republicans more generally, Jones and the Democrats made real, significant advances.
Better educated voters supported the Democrats, as has been the case in most recent elections.
But the most meaningful result of the Alabama election may turn out to be something else. The Democrats may have discovered their candidate for 2020. She is New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.
Trump and his son Eric have both excoriated Gillibrand since last week’s election. In response to her calls for Trump himself to be investigated for sexual misconduct and even to resign in response to charges against him, as have Democratic Senator Al Franken and Congressman John Conyers, Trump and his son tweeted their recollection that Gillibrand as a candidate often approached them for political donations. Donald Trump said she “begged” for the money, and would do “anything” for it. The salacious sexual innuendo was hard to miss.
The Trumps may come to regret this. Particularly during a period when sexual predation has become a major national political issue, their attacks have elevated New York’s junior senator to unprecedented prominence. It is thus instructive to recall Gillibrand’s political history. The previous high point occurred in late 2008.
Barack Obama had then just been elected president. He decided to appoint New York Senator Hillary Clinton to the position of Secretary of State. Speculation raged around whom then Governor David Patterson would appoint to replace her. New York’s numerous major Democratic power brokers each had their own nominee. Some additional candidates put themselves forward. An internecine blood bath loomed. But none occurred.
The governor picked a relatively little known Democratic congresswoman with deep New York state political roots from a conservative, formerly safe Republican district in the Hudson River valley south of Albany. The furore subsided, almost immediately.
Kirsten Gillibrand has been in the Senate ever since, last retaining her seat in 2012 by the largest margin ever racked up in a New York statewide election. No Republican has yet come forth to oppose her re-election next year. She is a prodigious fund raiser with potentially broad centrist appeal. It would be unwise to bet against her now.