For months, Democrats have stayed quiet about what, if anything, they were doing in Alabama to help Doug Jones in the state’s special Senate election. They’d insist they were helping, but they wouldn’t say how.
“The Democrats have been doing a lot, but focused on the fact that Doug Jones has put together a really good campaign,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who is leading the Democratic Party’s campaign efforts in Senate races this cycle, told HuffPost last month. “So we’re doing what we can to support Doug Jones’ campaign. ... But I think the story of this campaign is Doug Jones has put together a great organization.”
This reticence was strategic. They didn’t want Jones, who was running in a state that is heavily Republican, to be burdened by his association with the national Democratic Party. The focus was supposed to stay on him and his Alabama message. So there were no TV ads paid for by party committees and no high-profile transfers of funds to the campaign.
Behind the scenes, however, Democrats were heavily involved.
The Democratic National Committee invested nearly $1 million in the Alabama race, focused on organizing and mobilizing. The party also sent paid staffers to the state to help out, particularly in engaging African-American and millennial voters.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spent the full legal amount ― $366,700 ― to help the Jones campaign pay for expenses on staff, resources and other needs.
They conducted polling shortly after Moore won his party’s primary nomination in late September, determining Jones had a “narrow but possible path to victory.” It essentially led to a three-pronged strategy:
Expand the Democratic electorate (primarily by increasing African-American turnout).
Persuade some Republicans who were appalled by Moore to vote for Jones.
Hope that Republicans who didn’t like Moore stayed home on Election Day.
The DSCC also had staff on the ground, helping deal with the flood of campaign contributions and growing number of media requests.
Even before Jones won Tuesday night, Democratic officials were starting to publicly talk more about their role, suggesting that they were feeling optimistic about the results.
“We’ve had a team there throughout. Frankly from before the Republican primary. We’ve been all in for a long time,” said DNC Chair Tom Perez on MSNBC, adding, “We invested in organizing. We invested in digital work. We were out there helping to run programs that turn out voters.”
Aside from the official party structure, progressive groups and super PACs were also involved, with everyone from the Human Rights Campaign to End Citizens United to the Democratic research group American Bridge to local Indivisible chapters involved.
MoveOn.org endorsed Jones early on, and its members gave more than $250,000 to the campaign and sent more than 93,000 text messages to voters persuading them to vote. Democracy for America chipped in nearly $72,000, and thousands of its members chipped in volunteering for the effort. The League of Conservation Voters contributed nearly $300,000 to Jones’ campaign and a pro-Jones super PAC.
Senate Majority PAC said it spent more than $6 million on its program to elect Jones, including TV, digital advertising, mail and on-the-ground turnout operations focused on African-American voters, who were key to Jones’ win. It also partnered with Priorities USA on a $1.5 million digital campaign.
In the final days of the race, the national involvement started to become more evident. Former President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden both recorded robocalls for Jones, and politicians including Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) went to Alabama to campaign.
Alabama was the second big, nationally noticed win for Democrats in 2017. In November, they won some tough races, largely sweeping that election day by picking up key legislative seats and two governorships.
Jones’ win puts them a step closer to retaking the Senate in 2018 as well. When he gets sworn in, the Republican majority will drop from 52 to 51 seats. That means Democrats will need to pick up two, rather than three, seats next year.
Two is much easier than three. Nevada is considered a possible flip, because, although there’s a Republican senator now, Democrat Hillary Clinton won the state in the presidential election. And there’s an open seat in Arizona, which is far more hospitable territory for Democrats than the other six GOP-held Senate spots that are up for reelection. (Democrats will still have a tough time, because they have 26 seats to defend to the GOP’s eight in 2018.)
There’s no doubt that Jones’ victory will reverberate around the nation, giving the resistance movement that formed in the wake of Trump’s election a jolt of energy. And it emboldens activists who want the Democratic Party to pay more attention to places that seem tough to win, so that when someone like Moore comes along, the party is ready with a strong candidate and an infrastructure to back her up.
“Today’s victory in Alabama is proof that progressives should be competing everywhere,” said Maria Urbina, political director for the Indivisible Project.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said Democrats have 25 Senate seats to defend in 2018. In fact, they now have 26 to defend, since Minnesota Sen. Al Franken resigned. Minnesota will have a special election for his replacement next year.