Alabama voters weigh in on closely-watched special election
On the ground in Alabama, supporters of Democrat Doug Jones and Republican Roy Moore see a lot at stake in the special Senate election on Dec. 12. (Alice Li, Jenny Starrs, Jordan Frasier/The Washington Post)
By Paul Kane December 12 at 11:37 AM
It’s easy to view Roy Moore’s controversial candidacy as a self-inflicted wound by Senate Republicans.
Over the summer, the GOP’s top strategists analyzed a complicated three-way race for the party’s nomination to succeed Jeff Sessions, who left the seat to become attorney general, and came to this conclusion: The only path to victory for the establishment favorite, appointed senator Luther Strange, was to elevate Moore on the initial ballot, on the belief that he would lose in the runoff in late September, leading to an easy victory for Strange in Tuesday’s general election.
As we all now know, that didn’t happen. Moore, a controversial former judge, ran away with the Republican nomination. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his top lieutenants are left with few options other than to contain the damage of what will be a brutal defeat either way in Alabama. If Democrat Doug Jones wins the special election, McConnell will face a perilously thin majority, 51 to 49, in the Senate — and more perilous prospects of losing it altogether in the November 2018 midterm elections.
If Moore wins, McConnell will face the greatest test yet of the “contagion” theory that he has followed for the past five years. The Senate probably would open an immediate ethics investigation of allegations that Moore made inappropriate advances toward teenage girls when he was a local prosecutor in his 30s. Perhaps more important, the former judge’s positions on such issues as gay rights, marriage and Islam would draw immediate attention — in Moore’s floor speeches, his appearances on news shows and his daily interactions with the congressional press corps in halls of the Capitol — and would force Republicans to explain their colleague’s views day after day after day.
It began during the 2012 Senate campaign in Missouri, when Republican Todd Akin lost after claiming, in an effort to explain his opposition to abortion even in cases of assault, that pregnancy rarely results from a “legitimate rape.” Ever since, Senate Republicans have forcefully tried to defeat candidates they consider on the fringes of public opinion to protect themselves from being damaged by out-of-step views.
What it would take for a Democrat to win Alabama View Graphic
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Until the Alabama campaign, McConnell’s team had a more than four-year run in successfully thwarting those types of insurgent Republicans in primary races. The strategy helped Republicans end the 2014 and 2016 elections with the majority.
But the run ended this year in Alabama, in the unpredictable era of President Trump. And now, Republicans are unsure about how to proceed.
“I guess you can do a postmortem on anything and dissect it, I don’t know,” Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), who opposes Moore’s candidacy, said Monday evening. He then added, perhaps philosophically: “We’re where we are today, I wish we weren’t where we were, but we are.”
Shelby was giving voice to what has become conventional wisdom among most Republicans and many Democrats — that the volatility of the race has made a Jones victory a very real possibility.
The peculiarity of a special election in December already makes it difficult enough to predict who will show up at the polls. But the allegations against Moore have left his support hard to measure in a state that is not used to contested elections.
“The presumption is the Republican’s gonna win it, in this case, Moore, but he might not,” Shelby said, before a long pause. “I don’t know.”
‘I’ll go to battle with this guy’: Moore supporters rally behind him in the final hours
Supporters of Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore rallied behind him at his final campaign event on Dec. 11. (Jordan Frasier/The Washington Post)
In 2014, seven statewide races appeared on the Alabama ballot. Strange, easily winning reelection to his previous post as attorney general, was the only Republican to receive less than 60 percent. He received 59 percent.
There are no well-known, proven public polls in Alabama. RealClearPolitics has no public surveys available for the 2016 presidential campaign or for Shelby’s reelection last year.
A Jones victory would give Democrats an immediate injection of energy, and it would encourage others to make long-shot bids in Republican states such as Nebraska, Utah and Wyoming. GOP incumbents are considered overwhelming favorites in those places, but if a Democrat can win in Alabama, it will provide encouragement to others.
Bitter Senate race tests Alabama’s image in the country — and at home
If Jones is elected, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) would need a net pickup of two seats next year, and although that would still seem like a high hurdle — Democrats are defending almost three times as many seats as Republicans are, and 10 of them are in states that Trump won last year — it would open a path.
All of it makes that GOP strategy over the summer — what seems like several lifetimes ago — feel ill-advised in the cold light of December.
It started when McConnell and the McConnell-affiliated Senate Leadership Fund super PAC mounted a multimillion-dollar campaign to tear down Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) to ensure that Strange would face Moore in the runoff. One TV ad showed Brooks slamming Trump, early in the 2016 campaign, when he was backing another candidate.
“I think what you’re going to see 12 to 18 months from now is a lot of people who have supported Donald Trump, they’re going to regret having done so, 12 to 18 months, but right now they’re enamored with the personality,” Brooks said.
Brooks, as a member of the rabble-rousing House Freedom Caucus, enjoyed inroads with the most conservative voters in Alabama, as well as credentials with more traditional business-friendly interests. The thinking of Senate leaders was that if Strange’s allies took out Moore in the initial vote, Brooks would win the runoff in a rout.
So they buried Brooks’s campaign in that initial three-way race. And then they lost the runoff to Moore by a wide margin — setting up Tuesday’s race against Jones.
On Monday, Strange, in office just a few months, acknowledged that he was unaware of the custom for outgoing senators to escort their successors into the well of the Senate to be sworn in by the vice president.
Strange presumed that he will not fulfill that role, regardless of who wins.
“That’s a good question, I assume that’s up to Shelby, that’s kind of what I’m guessing,” he said Monday. “That will be his responsibility.”
In other words, either way the race turns out, Strange appears ready to wash his hands of the situation. For better or for worse, that option isn’t available to McConnell.
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