Alabama Result Likely to Impact 2018 Senate Races
Regardless of outcome, the high-stakes and volatile Alabama Senate special election Tuesday will likely ripple through the 2018 midterm elections and have a significant impact on the race for the Senate majority.
For Democrats, the stakes are clear: If Doug Jones pulls off an upset in deep-red Alabama, it will mark a clean sweep of statewide elections for the party this year. But more importantly, claiming the seat would swing a Senate map tilted heavily in Republicans’ favor just slightly more in the other direction, making the difficult task of winning back the Senate next year slightly more achievable -- though only slightly.
For Republicans, a loss by Roy Moore would deprive them of a critical seat in the chamber, narrowing their majority to one and making their task of passing legislation even more difficult than it has already proved to be. A victory, though, could be just as perilous because Democrats will seek to tie other GOP candidates to Moore, who has been accused of harassing or assaulting multiple women decades ago, when they were teenagers. (Moore has denied the allegations.)
Republicans have promised an Ethics Committee investigation if their nominee becomes a senator, which could linger deep into 2018 and prolong GOP divisions and Democratic attacks as the midterms approach.
Some strategists caution that it will be difficult to extrapolate any on-the-ground lessons from Tuesday’s outcome. The Alabama electorate is unpredictable, with an unpopular and polarizing Republican running and Election Day falling squarely between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The RealClearPolitics average gives Moore a 2.2 percentage-point advantage, but polls in the race’s final days varied by as many as 19 points.
Any analysis of how many Republicans stayed home because of Moore’s negatives, or how many didn’t support him but cast a vote against the Democrat, would be difficult to translate to contests across the country -- in fact, Alabama allows straight-ticket voting, which means some voters could back Moore without actually having to cast a vote specifically for him. Still, even if the race doesn’t prove to be a test case for other campaigns next year in terms of strategy, it still has massive implications for both parties.
Republicans currently hold a 52-48 majority in the Senate, and 25 of the 33 seats up for re-election next year are held by Democrats. Ten of those Democrats are running in states President Trump won last year, while only one Republican is up for re-election in a state won by Hillary Clinton. Still, despite the obstacles, some Democrats are optimistic about their party’s chances at winning a majority.
Sen. Tim Kaine, the Democratic Party’s former chairman and vice presidential candidate, told RealClearPolitics that “regardless of Tuesday, [the Senate majority] is definitely in play” but added that a win in Alabama “opens it up a lot.” He cited the favorable Virginia results last month and former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen announcing his Senate candidacy last week – to fill the seat being vacated by Bob Corker -- as evidence that Democrats have a path to controlling the chamber.
“The Virginia results tell me it’s in play,” Kaine said of the outcome in his home state.
Kaine’s optimism is a reverse image of the outlook shared by many Republicans, who have argued that even in victory, Moore creates lasting problems for their party.
“If you’re running in 2018 as a Republican, Roy Moore becomes your best friend,” Sen. Lindsey Graham said on CNN Monday, predicting Democratic attacks. “You’ll be asked about 10,000 times what you think about Roy Moore. Roy Moore will be the gift that keeps on giving for Democrats. It will define the 2018 elections, at least 2018, and to think you can elect Roy Moore without getting the baggage of Roy Moore is pretty naive.”
In the lead-up to Election Day in Alabama, Democrats have avoided nationalizing the race and have not framed it in terms of its impact on the Senate majority. Jones has run a low-key, state-focused campaign, and fundraising appeals from national Democrats on behalf of the nominee have largely centered on moral arguments, calling Moore unfit for office based on the allegations against him. Though an upset victory would open a path to a majority, Democratic strategists caution against unbridled optimism.
“I think the people who say the Senate is in play are trying to raise money for Democrats, and all credit to them, but the odds of it happening are still 1 in 20,” said one strategist focused on Senate races, who requested anonymity to speak frankly. “Is the Senate in play? Absolutely. Is the likeliest scenario that we take it back? No. The map is incredibly volatile.”
In many ways, Moore’s candidacy has caused a split among Republicans that will be hard to reconcile whether he wins or loses Tuesday. Trump backed Moore’s opponent in the primary, but has fully endorsed him leading up to the general election, recorded a robo-call to aid his get-out-the-vote efforts, and called on voters to back him at a rally in Florida over the weekend, just miles from the Alabama border. The Republican National Committee, after originally breaking with the GOP nominee following the allegations of sexual misconduct, spent $170,000 on his behalf last week.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declined to back Moore, attempting to pressure him to depart the race and seeking alternative strategies for Republicans, including a write-in campaign for another candidate. McConnell said Moore will face an immediate Ethics Committee investigation if he is elected, and Sen. Cory Gardner, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, withdrew support from Moore and said he should be expelled from the chamber if elected.
The deep divide within the party and the conflicting strategies heading into what should have been an easy race to replace Jeff Sessions has some Republicans concerned that even in a year where the map is tilted heavily in their favor, the Senate majority is not secure.
“I think it’s in play no matter what. Everybody is talking about how good the map is, but maps don’t make majorities,” said Scott Jennings, a former top adviser to President George W. Bush and McConnell. Even a Moore victory, Jennings added, would not quell his concern. “Winning in Alabama by single digits only proves that Alabama is the only state in America where you can get away with a candidacy like this. There will be no victory, moral or otherwise, in the results.”
The fault lines apparent in Alabama already exist in Senate primaries next year.
Allies of GOP leadership have used the tightly contested race to criticize Steve Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist and chairman of Breitbart News, who has been perhaps Moore’s most ardent supporter, for backing what they view as an unsuitable candidate.
Bannon has already been strategizing around Republican Senate primaries next year, and is on the opposite side of McConnell and establishment Republicans in several key races that Democrats view as their likeliest pick-up opportunities -- including backing Danny Tarkanian, an opponent to Sen. Dena Heller in Nevada, and Kelli Ward, a candidate to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Flake in Arizona.
Andy Surabian, an ally of Bannon’s and strategist for Great America Alliance, an outside group supporting Moore, said GOP voters will blame the Washington establishment if Jones wins because McConnell did not back the party’s nominee. And if Moore wins, the messaging is unlikely to be much different.
“It continues to show what I’ve already known,” Surabian said. “How little influence Washington Republicans like Mitch McConnell have over Republican voters across the country.”