A Tale Of Two Senate Seats: What We Learned From Alabama And Minnesota

Doug Jones defeats Roy Moore in Alabama and Mark Dayton picks his Lieutenant Governor Tina Smith to replace Al Franken in Minnesota. What should we infer or conclude from both? Far less than the national and local media and most pundits will assert.


On one level Roy Moore’s loss is about one seat in one state. It is about a twice-removed state Supreme Court Justice accused of child molestation, repudiated by much of the Republican establishment including Richard Shelby, losing to a moderate Democrat in a close special election. The Democratic Party and then media will proclaim this is a repudiation of Donald Trump and Steve Bannon, and that it is a referendum on both that portends well for the Democrats in 2018. Don’t bet on it. Every time there is a special election everyone wants to generalize or argue that it has broader significance. Remember at the end of the day Tip O’Neill was right–“all politics is local.”

In so many ways the Jones-Moore race was atypical. There are not too many times Democrats are going to run in 2018 against an accused child molester with crank views about religion and the Bill of Rights. Given all his liabilities, the race should have been a blow out. It took such a horrible candidate repudiated by his own state Republican Party for a Democrat to win barely. Take little solace in that.

Next year there will be 35 senate races when Democrats having to defend 25 seats and the GOP nine. Democrats will need to hold all their seats and win two Republican ones to control the seat. They also need a perfect storm to win back a gerrymandered controlled House and to make significant inroads into recapturing the governorships and state legislatures lost over the last few years. Yes opinion polls favor generic Democrats for Congress, Trump’s approvals are low, and the opposition party to the president in off-year elections historically does badly. But Democrats often do not show up in midterm elections and as of yet the Democratic Party has not constructed an alternative narrative to Trump’s to why they should be elected. In defeating Moore their rationale for winning is that he is a creep. Hardly a winning message for 2018 even against Trump.

Potentially what is significant is that the Democrats did crack the solid Republican South and elected their first Alabama senator in 25 years. Maybe–just maybe–Jones offers the type of candidate that Democrats can win in the South. Maybe we saw with Black turnout what the Voting Rights Act can really do. Maybe the South, especially the urban areas and the changing demographics, suggest changes that a longer term and more structural. But determining all that is too soon to tell and Democrats should not get their hopes up too soon. Demographics are not destiny, and local races against bad candidates cannot be exemplars for other local races across the country.


After a week of drama Dayton selects Tina Smith to replace Al Franken. Dayton could have done something bold and build for the future of the Democratic Party in Minnesota but he opted for predictability and loyalty in selecting Smith. This is who he was rumored to want a week ago, perhaps or not turning his back on pressures from various constituencies both local and national to select someone else.

But besides picking Smith out of predictability and loyalty, perhaps he also selected her for another value–competence. Rarely do we discuss competence as a trait among candidates for office, but in Smith we get someone who is a real public policy person. She is less about politics, campaigns, and elections, and more about tax policy, governance, and legislation. She is all that Hillary Clinton was without the baggage. Whether in a Trump era competence is the type of trait that is electable in 2018 is a matter of speculation and one will see if she faces challenges from within the DFL. But even if she does not, her 2018 special election will attract millions of dollars and outside national interest. It would be nice if she could simply run on being competent and smart but too few candidates–and especially women–can do that. Our pop culture dislikes intellectualism–historian Richard Hofstadter told us that years ago–and smart women are threatening to many. Smith in running for reelection will need to figure out how to run without making the mistakes Clinton made, simply being competent and smart it not enough, and she will also need to provide a narrative why she deserves to fill out the remaining two years of Franken’s term.

Finally, she needs to address a growing parochialism setting in among many Minnesotans and especially DFLers. There is a growing resentment that Chuck Schumer told Minnesotans that Franken had to go and therefore they were telling the state who our senator should be. There is some truth to that, but in the end, Franken had to go. Six to eight allegations of sexual impropriety, collapsing poll numbers for his support in the state, his inability even in his resignation speech to appreciate what he might have done all suggest that Franken had lost the ability to legislate. We should worry about how “accusation equals guilt” is creating a new Salem witch hunt, and yes what he was accused of doing is different from that of what brought Roy Moore down.

But character does matter and Franken’s brought him down, for good or for bad. The issue is not a lack of due process, the issue was his inability to provide a reasonable accuse or account for his behavior. The court of public opinion is not a real court. For those who said he deserved his day in court (or before the Senate Ethics Committee), the same could have been said about Roy Moore. Insisting on full due process for Franken would have required the same for Moore and everyone else charged with anything else on the campaign trail.

Good or bad, in a representative democracy voters and public opinion rule. Elected officials compete in the marketplace of ideas for vote and it should not usually if at all be that courts and trials decide the truth or veracity of claims. Maybe that is the lesson that should be generalized from Minnesota and perhaps Alabama.

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