The way things have been going in Alabama, some Democrats thought they might never taste victory again. So when Doug Jones, Alabama’s newly elected Democratic senator, took the stage here Tuesday night after his special election win, it was hard to blame him for being briefly overcome.
“Oh, my,” Jones said, as a moist-eyed, joyous crowd hung on his words. “Folks, I got to tell you, I think that I have been waiting all my life, and now I just don’t know what the hell to say.”
With Jones’s surprising win, the American political landscape seemed to rattle and tilt on its axis. If a Democrat could be elected in Alabama — a state President Donald Trump won by 28 points just last year — a lot of things suddenly look possible for the party out of power. And panicked Republicans confronted a stark reality: If they could lose Alabama, no Republican may be safe in next year’s midterm elections.
Jones faced an unusually weak opponent in Roy Moore, the twice-defrocked former state Supreme Court justice who was accused, after winning the Republican nomination, of preying on teenage girls. But 13 months ago, Alabama also faced a referendum on an accused sexual predator who struck divisive themes while seeking to discredit the media, and the result was very different. Since Trump was elected, something has changed in the American electorate — something big enough to flip one of America’s reddest states.
Gleeful Democrats hugged, cried, waved signs in the air at Jones’s Senate election-night celebration. Cannons released a shower of red-white-and-blue confetti. Jones’ win was powered by a surge of Democratic turnout and a steep dropoff in Republican turnout. Almost as many Alabamans voted for him in an irregularly scheduled midwinter special election as voted for Hillary Clinton last year — but Moore got less than half as many votes as Trump had. If that kind of turnout imbalance holds, Republicans “aren’t facing a 2018 wave, they’re facing a tsunami,” said Michael McDonald, a voter-turnout expert at the University of Florida.
The state’s senior senator and many national GOP leaders refused to support Moore. Trump stuck with him. But for the third election in as many months, Trump’s support did not help his chosen candidate; it may even have hurt, by galvanizing anti-Trump voters. Just 48 percent of special-election voters said they supported the president. The win for Jones, who will serve through 2020, cuts Republicans’ majority in the Senate to 51-49, complicating the president’s agenda and increasing the chances of Democrats taking the Senate next year.
“Doug Jones tapped into something bigger than Democrats and bigger than Alabama,” Randall Woodfin, the young, left-wing, newly elected mayor of Birmingham, told me. “It’s a miracle. And man, oh man, do we need it.”
A special election is by definition a fluke, an unusual vote under an unusual set of circumstances (in this case, the appointment of Jeff Sessions to Trump’s Cabinet). But it is also a symptom. The currents that helped Moore win the GOP primary, over Trump’s objection — anti-establishment fervor, culture-war red meat — will continue to afflict the Republican Party nationally. And the voters who won it for Doug Jones exist all over America: women, young people, African Americans, suburbanites.
The defeat of an alleged sexual predator was particularly symbolic for women, who have led a wave of activism since Trump was elected. The women who came forward to accuse Moore said they broke decades of silence because they thought they might finally be heard. Even as Moore was trying to discredit his accusers, high-profile men across the spectrum — in Hollywood, in media, in business and in politics — faced long-overdue judgment for their past actions. On the same day Moore was defeated, Trump feuded in suggestive terms with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand after she called on him to resign.
The wounds of the past run deep in Alabama, and they aren’t all fully healed. After Jones left the stage, I spoke to Patricia Gaines, a petite, elegant 78-year-old in dark lipstick. She grew up in Selma, she told me; her father was a local minister who offered communion to blacks. That angered the local Ku Klux Klan, who came on horseback to threaten them. The family fled in the middle of the night. With her father out of work, Gaines entered beauty pageants to put herself through college and was crowned Miss Alabama.
That was in 1961. Traumatized, Gaines never again set foot in Selma — until Election Day, when she traveled to her hometown to give black voters rides to the polls. “Today the tide started to turn away from the insanity we have been living through,” she told me, her eyes moist. “It is time for a return to decency, love and compassion.”
The jubilant crowd lofted cocktails and danced to booming beats. Earlier, the DJ had queued up “Sweet Home Alabama,” the anthem of Southern defiance. Young and old, black and white, men and women, the Democrats all sang along, heads thrown back in joy — “ooh, ooh, ooh” — as if to say: This is our state now.
A failed Republican blueprint
Moore rode his horse, Sassy, to the polls on Election Day, a cowboy-hatted embodiment of the nostalgia animating many of his devotees. The press, which he considered one of his opponents, scattered in front of him as he rode. His other opponents included both the Democratic and Republican parties.
Moore wasn’t wrong to claim that Washington was afraid of him. In the primary he’d campaigned against the Republican Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, a tactic that proved brutally effective. (Just 16 percent of the voters on Tuesday approved of McConnell.) Many D.C. Republicans feared prior to the vote that a Moore win would be worse for the party than a loss, tainting them with swing voters while empowering the far right.
There was a larger fear at play for both political parties: What if the Trump-like playbook of Moore’s campaign worked? The political theory of Steve Bannon, Trump’s former strategist, is that tribal grievance is more powerful than the parties’ tired old platforms of kitchen-table issues — that you can move more voters with “Lock her up!” and “Build the wall!” and “Fake news!” than with old-fashioned issues and tactics. And so Moore and his allies distributed appeals about preserving Confederate monuments and making players kneel at football games and warning about dangerous criminals registering to vote. The Republican gubernatorial candidate in Virginia, Ed Gillespie, took a similar tack last month. If either candidate had won, this set of issues might have become the new political blueprint.
That was a frightening prospect, both to the traditional Republicans Bannon has vowed to drum out of office and to the Democrats who worried they would find themselves on the wrong side of this culture war. But Moore’s loss suggested the opposite might be true: Bannon may have led Republicans into an ideological cul de sac, with a platform that’s irresistible to their hard-core base but poisonous to everyone else. The worst-case scenario for Republicans is a future in which only Moore-like candidates can win primaries, embracing positions that prompt Democrats to mobilize to defeat them.
On the eve of the Senate election, Bannon had come to Alabama to deliver the message himself. On Monday night, in a newly built barn-cum-wedding-venue on a farm in remote southeast Alabama, Bannon warmed up a couple of hundred supporters for Moore. The night was dark and chilly — Alabama had received an unusual winter snowstorm in the last week. Outside the barn, a green tarp festooned with branches, dried moss, and toy alligators was meant to evoke the “swamp” Moore vowed to “drain.”
The election, Bannon proclaimed, was a good-and-evil showdown between “the Trump miracle and the nullification project.” Of the GOP establishment, he said, “They’re trying to get you to shut up.” But, he added, “They couldn’t beat Trump because they couldn’t beat you … it’s the deplorables, it’s the hobbits, it’s the silent majority.”
Accompanying Bannon was his supporting cast, the army with which he intends to invade the GOP. There was Corey Stewart, the once and future Virginia candidate, who nearly won a gubernatorial nomination on a platform of Confederate nostalgia; there was Paul Nehlen, who is trying (for the second time) to take down House Speaker Paul Ryan in Wisconsin, and who recently told a columnist to “eat a bullet”; there were candidates for office in Texas and Missouri and Indiana, and the controversial former Milwaukee sheriff David Clarke. Together, they are Bannon’s agents of chaos — but now that Moore has lost, they may struggle for traction.
Moore himself was not a Bannon creation but an ally of convenience. Like Trump, he was, for Bannon, a useful battering ram against the hated establishment. Before he became known as an alleged pedophile, Moore was already plenty controversial: in addition to defying the Supreme Court, he had argued that Muslims should not hold office, that gay sex should be illegal, and that life was better in the time of slavery.
Moore’s wife, Kayla, testified to her husband’s character, pointing out that he has had black employees and a Jewish lawyer. Of the press, she said, “In my opinion, they should be held accountable.”
Moore, for his part, said, “If you don’t believe in my character, don’t vote for me.” Then he ducked into a back room to appear on Bannon’s satellite radio show, which airs six hours a day.
The Moore supporters in attendance were certain he hadn’t done the things of which he’d been accused. Had he won, it would have deepened the sense that partisans are cocooned in their own separate realities, impervious to disagreeable facts. According to exit polls, nearly all of those who voted for Moore believed the allegations against him were false. “It is so wrong for those women to tell these vicious lies,” Bernadette Pittman, who traveled to Alabama in her capacity as the head of Northwest Florida Bikers for Trump, told me. “I am a victim of sexual assault, and I know you can’t keep a secret like that for 38 years. It would kill you.”
At the entrance to the farm, a knot of protesters wore red dresses and white bonnets, evoking “The Handmaid’s Tale.” A peanut farmer from a nearby town, Nathan Mathis, stood with a sign imploring his fellow citizens not to vote for Moore, and a photograph of his late daughter, Patti Sue, a lesbian who shot herself to death at age 23. Nathan Mathis found her on the floor of her trailer.
“My daughter believed Jesus to be God’s son,” he said. “She was baptized. She was gay—she wasn’t a pre-vert.” The knot of reporters around him asked what he hoped to accomplish by coming here. “If we sit back and don’t say anything,” he said, “we deserve what we get.”
New hope for Democrats
What Doug Jones hoped his Senate election meant, he told me, was that things were going to change. It was the day before the election, a day he had spent bounding tirelessly from place to place. Jones can seem dour and bland in ads and news clips, but in person he has a bouncy energy and a quick laugh. He’s not flashy, but he seems to know who he is.
I asked Jones why he had embarked on a seemingly doomed campaign. “I just felt like the timing was right in this state for some people to have a voice that I knew had not felt they had had a voice in the past,” he told me. It wasn’t just the presidential election: he pointed to the recent removals of a governor, a chief justice, a speaker of the house convicted. “People were tired, and they wanted people to talk straight to them,” he said. “The only way to guarantee that you can’t win is to not run at all.”
Appointed U.S. Attorney by President Bill Clinton in 1997, Jones in 2001 brought to trial two men who had never been prosecuted for their involvement in the 1965 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four young black girls. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a eulogy for the girls, but J. Edgar Hoover declined to prosecute the case. To prosecute the bombers, Jones unearthed a never-before-heard recording of Thomas Blanton telling his wife, “You have to have a meeting to make a bomb.” A granddaughter of the other bomber, Bobby Cherry, testified that he had boasted about having “helped blow up a bunch of niggers back in Birmingham.” Jones put them both in jail.
Jones hoped his Senate election would strike a blow for sanity, for coming together, for rising above partisanship. “A lot of people are just concerned that we have reached fever pitch in the partisan divide,” he said. “It’s real easy to get people whipped up into a frenzy by preying on their fears.” His first priority in Washington, he said, would be fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which the current Congress has let expire. In Alabama, 150,000 children depend on the program.
Jones’s victory was also the story of a skilled, well-financed campaign powered by a dogged candidate who became a national cause célèbre for the left. The campaign and its allies focused on voter mobilization and turnout. While Moore virtually disappeared — perhaps fearing confrontation with the press, or believing that God’s will does not depend on get-out-the-vote programs — Jones’s campaign boasted it had logged millions of contacts with voters. The upscale, Republican-leaning suburbs where he drew crucial crossover votes were blanketed in Jones signs. His approach could be a road map for other Democrats to make gains in hostile territory.
A few doors down from Jones’s Birmingham headquarters, I sat in the back of the Magnolia barbecue restaurant with an effusive 57-year-old white woman named Carole Griffin. The smell of smoked meat filled the air, and an urban radio station played on the speakers. Between songs, a deep-voiced man backed by jazz piano warned, “Roy Moore wanted to keep the Jim Crow language in the Alabama constitution. … Make sure everybody in your family votes.” It was funded by Highway 31, a super PAC funded by national Democrats that spent $4 million on Jones’s behalf.
An Alabama native, Griffin owns a French bakery in town. She had always been quietly progressive, not wanting to alienate her customers. But Trump’s election motivated her to take a stronger stand. She was helping mobilize voters for the campaign in conjunction with MoveOn. Griffin also heads the local Indivisible chapter, which has grown to more than 2,000 members.
“I was in despair about being a progressive in Alabama,” she told me. “Now I realize nobody knew where to find me!”
Jones cemented local liberals’ loyalty when he showed up at their five-day round-the-clock sit-in at their senators’ local offices, protesting the proposed health-care bill — in the rain. The group’s most active members include a suburban housewife, young Black Lives Matter activists, a doctor, and a plumber and his wife from a rural area outside the city. “They’re my favorite protest buddies, because they’re not afraid to yell,” Griffin said. About two-thirds of the members are women.
Griffin was sure Jones’s Senate election was no fluke. It was the product of a movement that had been building for some time. It was the product of a Republican Party gone crazy and a Democratic Party that was getting off the sidelines. It was a product of a changing Alabama: in Cullman, a historic Klan outpost an hour north of Birmingham, she had attended a Young Democrats gathering hosted by a gay-rights activist and a drag queen.
“It’s just a matter of moving that needle a little bit further,” she said. “We’re not like that stereotype of us. There is something happening.” After years of political disappointment, Griffin said, “It’s given me hope.”