Alabama and its Implications
One of the strangest elections in American history is now behind us. Last night, Alabama voted to send Doug Jones to the United States Senate to fill the seat vacated by then-Senator Jeff Sessions, who departed the chamber to become Attorney General. Jones’ opponent, Judge Roy Moore, was a highly controversial candidate who was accused by multiple women of having inappropriate relationships with them when they minors. Many Republicans in Washington are breathing easier this morning: had Moore won, the GOP would have been painted into a political corner, forced to determine how – or whether – to work alongside someone with such an allegedly checkered past.
In the spirit of providing apolitical, data-driven analysis at the intersection of politics and policy, we will focus here not on the race itself – or the candidates – but rather on what the last night’s results may tell us about the current mood of the electorate and what Jones’ election to the Senate means, practically.
First, to level-set: President Trump won the state of Alabama by more than 28 points in 2016. Among states that voted for President Trump last year, Alabama ranked sixth in terms of the President’s largest margins of victory, behind only Kentucky, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Wyoming, and West Virginia. Last night, Doug Jones, the Democrat, captured 49.9% of the vote, compared to Roy Moore’s 48.4%. Although Judge Moore has thus far refused to concede and intimated that a recount will be undertaken by state officials, this claim does not appear to be based in fact. Under Alabama election law, recounts are mandatory only for elections in which the winning margin is less than 0.5% of the vote, and the Secretary of the State of Alabama last night said publicly that “the people of Alabama have spoken” and that, in his view, it is “highly unlikely” that Doug Jones would not be sent to the Senate.
Digging into the data, one would be hard-pressed to argue that last night’s election doesn’t represent a stark warning for both President Trump, who supported Judge Moore, and the Republican Party more broadly. Historically, voter turnout in special elections is relatively low across the country. Not so last night: 26,151 more Alabamians voted yesterday than did so in the 2016 presidential race. For polling data geeks, this is a stunning statistic that cannot be underscored enough. For the Democrats, who have openly worried since last November -- when black voter turnout dropped for the first time in 20 years -- whether they had structurally lost the black vote, last night’s results will offer significant comfort in that black voters in Alabama were almost singularly responsible for Jones’ victory. Turnout among black voters yesterday was 28%, roughly the same as it was in 2012 for President Obama’s re-election. According to the exit polls, this demographic voted almost entirely as a bloc: 92% of black men and 97% of black women voted for Doug Jones yesterday.
Before the election, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had indicated that whichever candidate won last night wouldn’t be seated in the Senate until January. The Alabama Secretary of State’s office has validated this view, attesting that the certification of votes from the election likely would not be completed until after Christmas. This arrangement, which would allow incumbent Senator Luther Strange (R-AL), who was appointed to fill Sessions’ seat on an interim basis until after the special election, to remain in the Senate through the end of 2017, has some bipartisan precedent: when Senator Scott Brown (R-MA) won a special election to fill the vacancy created by the death of Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), then-Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) waited 16 days to seat Brown. All the while, Senator Paul Kirk (D-MA), a Democratic Party leader who had been temporarily appointed to fill Kennedy’s seat until the special election, remained in the Senate, extending the period of the Democrats’ supermajority of 60 votes for just over two weeks.
Democratic policymakers and pundits alike will argue, as they have already started to this morning, that no votes of particular significance were cast in the Senate between Brown’s election and his swearing in. In contrast, Leader McConnell has made clear his intention to have the Senate vote on the tax reform package conference report – the final bill that, if passed, would be sent to the President’s desk – next week, before Senator-elect Jones takes office. Having already lost one vote on the initial Senate tax reform vote – that of Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) – Democrats point out that, were Jones to be seated before the tax reform vote, the vote would be split at 50-50, forcing Vice President Pence to break the tie. Keeping Senator Strange in the Senate for another few weeks therefore provides McConnell with some degree of room to maneuver on tax reform, however narrow. Nearly all Democratic members of the Senate have already this morning called for Leader McConnell to delay the final vote on tax reform until Senator-elect Jones takes office. Given the math, it seems unlikely that McConnell will heed these calls.
Once Jones is sworn in, every single vote in the Senate becomes infinitely harder for McConnell. For every roll call taken, he will have to keep his conference almost unanimously in line. For those Republican senators who have historically split with their leadership from time to time, including Senators Collins (R-ME), Flake (R-AZ), Corker (R-TN), and McCain (R-AZ), their leverage to extract concessions from leadership and the White House alike in exchange for their support of confirmation votes or big-ticket legislation such as spending bills or increases the debt limit grows exponentially. Similarly, the need for GOP leadership in the Senate to seek bipartisan support of legislation it hopes to enact has been amplified. For Leader McConnell and his deputies, delivering legislative results in 2018 will depend mightily upon their ability to attract Democratic votes to bills they hope to send to the White House.
More broadly, left-leaning pundits will argue that last night’s results suggest that Democrats have improved odds of capturing the Senate in next year’s mid-term elections. As of this morning, online betting odds of a Democratic Senate majority in 2019 from the same sites that predicted both Brexit and a Trump presidency have increased significantly, to just about 50%. Though the Senate map for November 2018 is difficult for Democrats, open seats in Tennessee and Arizona bolster this possibility. That said, November 2018 is still a very long way away.
Nonetheless, Doug Jones’ election last night – and the data behind it – have significant implications for both the political and policy arenas moving forward.