On Tuesday, Alabama elected a Democrat, Doug Jones, to the U.S. Senate for the first time since 1992. Jones’s victory is a stunning upset in a Republican stronghold, and it narrows the party’s margin in the U.S. Senate to a single member and the vice president’s tiebreaker vote. Republican Party nominee Roy Moore’s loss spells a humiliating end to the first year of President Donald Trump’s administration, which has been defined by scandal, incompetence, internal betrayals, rapid staff turnover, executive overreach, inflammatory rhetoric, legislative failures, and off-year electoral losses culminating with Moore’s loss to Jones. For the GOP — and for the rest of the country — Trump’s presidency has been a political disaster. Trump endorsed Moore, a former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court who faces allegations of molesting teenage girls. Grudgingly, the GOP resumed backing Moore’s campaign. But Alabama voters narrowly rejected Moore, whose many indignities bewildered Republican voters and inspired high turnout among the state’s Democrats. And a strategy shepherded by one of the architects of the president’s rise to power proved ineffective for Republicans and galvanizing for the Democratic opposition.
Jones will succeed Republican Senator Luther Strange, the appointee who replaced Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, in the Senate. Strange held the seat temporarily, and he lost the GOP nomination to Moore, a flamboyant reactionary who styles himself as a cowboy, and whose rebellious campaign rhetoric recalls Trump’s political style. Still, Moore’s campaign was always a long shot, at least in the Republican leadership’s conservative estimations. In the GOP primary, Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell both supported Strange as a safe bet to hold a typically uncompetitive seat. Meanwhile, Trump’s favorite strategist, Steve Bannon — who departed the White House in August — backed Moore’s wild, fringe campaign as an idealized expression of Trumpism. “President Trump got the wrong information and came down on the wrong side of the football here,” Bannon told Sean Hannity the Monday night before Moore beat Strange in September’s GOP primary. “I think Roy Moore is the guy that’s going to represent Donald Trump and fight the establishment.”
For better or worse, Moore did attempt to echo Trump’s insurgency. In September, Moore trounced Strange by 10 points, after which Trump quickly endorsed Moore for the general election, even as McConnell declined to back a candidate who routinely mocked him in speeches, interviews, and advertisements during the primary. Initially, McConnell opposed Moore because of his fringe, Trumpian political style. In Alabama, the GOP base began to follow suit only after The Washington Post published six women’s accounts of Moore’s predatory behavior dating back to the 1970s, including child molestation and sexual assault. Four days after the Post published its initial story, The New Yorker reported local rumors that a Gadsden, Alabama, mall had gone so far as to ban Moore from its premises in response to complaints that Moore, then in his 30s, would pester teenage girls. As he repeatedly denied these allegations in the weeks following both reports, his campaign’s racial animus became even more inflammatory, his combativeness even more pronounced. Suddenly, the Senate race was a referendum on Trumpism and a fever dream rematch of the 2016 presidential election, in which the first female nominee from a major U.S. political party lost to a man who faces several allegations of sexual assault. This time around, the Republican Party’s cynicism backfired catastrophically.
Bannon, too, saw the Alabama race as an opportunity to replay the strategy that elected Trump. In light of the allegations against Moore, Bannon encouraged Republican voters and activists to double down on the party’s nominee as a vanguard in his “season of war” against the Republican establishment. Meanwhile, several GOP legislators begged Moore to step aside. But — much as Trump refused to abandon the presidential race during the Access Hollywood scandal in the late phase of the presidential election last year — Moore survived the Republican establishment’s second thoughts, and the GOP quietly activated its logistical support for Moore’s campaign once statewide polls swung back in Moore’s favor. For two weeks before the election, the polling averages tightened, and the Alabama Senate seat — once a safe Republican asset, then briefly a sure Democratic flip — became a toss-up. But Jones upset Moore by about 20,000 votes, with high turnout from Democratic bastions in the state and overwhelming support from black voters being key factors in his victory. Turnout wasn’t just high; it overwhelmingly favored Alabama’s minority party despite elected officials’ notorious efforts to tamper with black voter registration all across the state. Republicans enjoyed several natural advantages in Alabama that they squandered by nominating Moore, a relatively unpopular figure who made a point of mimicking a deeply unpopular president.
Moore’s loss recalls the January 2010 special election in Massachusetts, when the Democrats lost the late Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat to an unlikely Republican insurgent, Scott Brown. A year into Barack Obama’s first presidential term, Brown upset the Massachusetts race at the height of conservative backlash to Obama’s health care reform efforts, and his victory was widely characterized as a post-Obama victory. Nearly three years after Brown won the seat, he lost it to current Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, but his election nonetheless marked the start of the GOP’s successful efforts to recapture both chambers of Congress during Obama’s presidency. Like Brown, Jones will take office as an immediately vulnerable incumbent; he is up for reelection in 2020, when his odds of retaining the seat for a full term will likely be less favorable than they were in his bid against the divisive and scandalous Moore. Still, Jones yields a crucial shred of optimism for the Democrats in 2017 and beyond. In the near term, Jones’s election imperils the Republican tax reform efforts. In the long term, his victory emboldens Democratic strategists and liberal activists heading into the 2018 midterm elections, in which Democrats seem increasingly likely to recapture the House, and maybe even the Senate. In the Democrats’ grand scheme to retake Congress, Jones’s win marks an audacious start.
Even without looking ahead too prematurely to the 2020 presidential election, it’s clear that Moore’s candidacy draws a stark, party-line split in tolerance for sexual misconduct. As the GOP rallied around Moore, the Democrats successfully pressured Al Franken and John Conyers to resign from the Senate and the House, respectively, following unrelated accounts from several women detailing sexual harassment, groping, and attempted coercion. In recent months, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat, has led efforts to reform the handling of sexual misconduct complaints on Capitol Hill. Gillibrand was the first Democratic senator to call for Franken’s resignation, which came less than a month after she told The New York Times that Bill Clinton should’ve resigned in light of his sexual exploitation of a White House intern. As Gillibrand emerges as a clear and resounding conscience in U.S. politics, Trump has subjected the junior New York senator to brutal innuendo that only further underscores this crucial divergence between the two major parties. “Lightweight Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a total flunky for Chuck Schumer and someone who would come to my office ‘begging’ for campaign contributions not so long ago (and would do anything for them), is now in the ring fighting against Trump,” the president tweeted early Tuesday morning, a day after Gillibrand led renewed calls for Trump to resign in light of several, long-standing accusations of sexual misconduct.
The Republican Party’s post-Trump ethics are murkiest in the moments when Trump seems to have exhausted its patience in the extreme. Two days before the special election, Alabama’s other senator, Republican Richard Shelby, told CNN that he “couldn’t vote for Moore,” even as the GOP base and the rest of the party leadership seemed to rally around their beleaguered candidate in the final stretch. But Republican senators once offered similar disavowals of Trump, who won regardless, and who few major Republicans seriously oppose. Shelby may have distanced himself from Moore on principle, but he never abandoned Trump. So it’s unclear where, exactly, Republicans draw the line between vulgar indiscretion and gross, disqualifying misconduct.
In the first hours following Moore’s loss, Republicans have avoided any meaningful reconciliation of Moore and Trump. Instead, several conservative activists and commentators have seized the opportunity to make Steve Bannon their scapegoat for favoring Moore over Strange in the first place. The immediate backlash against Bannon suggests that other Republican figures — strategists, analysts, and potential candidates alike — may adopt a moderated tone in the coming weeks. But even as Bannon’s influence falters, Trump’s command of the GOP has pit the party against women, including the women who came forward about Moore and Trump, and Trump’s critics, with vicious exuberance. Even as Moore won overwhelming support from white women who voted Tuesday, the sexual misconduct allegations that doomed Moore’s campaign seemingly stifled overall turnout from his base catastrophically. At year’s end, it’s unclear what the rest of the Republican Party should be so exuberant about. In 2018, McConnell, Shelby, and the rest of the GOP caucus may find themselves rethinking Trump’s political viability, too.