In the end, the Alabama Senate special election between Democrat Doug Jones and embattled Republican Roy Moore was as advertised: tight as a tick. Out of the more than 1,300,000 million votes cast, 37% came from Democrats, who over-performed their share of the electorate significantly. An election predicted to bring out just 25% of registered voters instead saw at least 40% of the electorate participate, with the increases powered by high turnout rates of African Americans and college educated voters, who made up 44% of the electorate in a state with one of the lowest rates of college educated population in the country. Jones still lost white college educated women, but only by 7 points. In Alabama, a state that hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since 1992.
So what can be learned in the wake of this election? First, and foremost, it is important to recognize that despite the credible allegations of sexual abuse of minors plaguing Roy Moore he won 91% of the votes cast by self-identified Republicans. For all of the effort spent courting Republican voters, like Clinton before him, Jones failed to convince Republicans to defect from their party in the name of decency. Jones’ upset victory was a product of three things: a surge in turnout of key Democratic Party constituencies, carrying Independents by 8 points, and the siphoning off of an estimated 23,000 votes (about 1.7% of the total vote) to write-in candidates, presumably for beloved Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban. Ultimately, Doug Jones won this senate race because Democrats voted in huge numbers in a deep red state where Republicans enjoy a 17 point partisan advantage and Democrats have a weak party infrastructure. The implications of this improbable election victory are surely not lost on congressional Republicans. There isn’t a blue wave headed for congressional Republicans next fall, its a tsunami.
The driving force behind Republican congressional dominance since 2010 is usually attributed to gerrymandering, and it is true that the current maps drawn after the Tea Party wave have a historic bias towards Republicans. However, equally problematic for Democrats have been the low rates of voter participation in non-presidential election cycles, which have further reinforced Republican advantages from the congressional maps. In general, low voter turnout favors Republicans, because voters who drop out of the electorate in these cycles are voters that are more likely to vote for Democrats such as minority voters and millennials. Indeed, that is one of the motivating factors driving Republican efforts to enact voter ID laws and reduce early voting days in states where they control the legislative process.
The puzzle of how to get Democratic voters to show up at the polls in off-year elections has been the focus of Democratic strategists for decades. By far the best way to increase turnout of partisan voters is to have the opposition party controlling the presidency. Indeed, the Tea Party waves in the 2010 and 2014 midterms were powered by Republican voters’ backlash to Barack Obama. When one party’s voters are motivated to vote and the other party’s voters aren’t, partisan advantages in a state or district can be offset or even erased. A good example of this would be Virginia, which has undergone a dramatic demographic shift over the past few decades as the power shifted to Northern Virginia away from the southwestern area of the state. Yet, despite an embedded demographic advantage for Democrats, Terry McAuliffe barely beat his controversial Republican opponent in the 2013 gubernatorial election and in the following year’s senate election, Incumbent Senator Mark Warner just barely staved off an upset by his Republican opponent Ed Gillespie who outperformed the polls because of lower-than-expected turnout of Democrats.
Now it is the Democrats who are locked out of power in Washington. Even under a President Bush or Rubio Democrats would have entered 2017 and the 2018 midterms with an enthusiasm advantage, but under President Trump this effect is heightened considerably. Trump’s brand of constant controversy and chaos serves as a daily reminder of the 2016 presidential election where Hillary Clinton lost the Electoral College despite earning nearly 3 million more votes after unprecedented sabotage by the Russian government. As evidenced by the elections in Virginia and Alabama, Democrats are fired up to vote and stand poised to make big gains in the House of Representatives in the 2018 congressional midterms. On top of the 23 House Republicans who hold seats in districts carried by Clinton in 2016, there are another 30 or so Republicans serving in “suburban” districts with very similar demographics to the suburbs around Washington D.C. and Birmingham, Alabama. If the enthusiasm driving Democrats to the polls is large enough to squeeze out a victory in Alabama, then it is large enough to flip 60 or more House seats in the 2018 midterms, including the one held by the current Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Ryan serves in a district with a COOK PVI score of R+5 which leaves him more than a little vulnerable to a Democratic Party wave next year. Indeed, around 120 House Republicans serve in districts with PVI scores of 10 or less, all of whom just became vulnerable in next year’s election.
You can bet this fact is not lost on Speaker Ryan and his Republican counterparts. But given the strangle hold the Bannon-wing of the party has on the nomination process, congressional Republicans are limited in what they can do to mitigate the daily damage a Trump presidency inflicts on the party from Pennsylvania Avenue. To cross Donald Trump is to cross the Trump base, who have dug in their heels on supporting the president despite growing evidence of collusion and obstruction in the Russia probe. Although the defeat of Roy Moore gives the so-called Republican Establishment some much-needed ammunition to fight back against Bannon, their larger problem remains the same. On current trajectory Republicans are going to get wiped out in the 2018 midterms and there is little they can do about it because the party’s base is too strong and the party is too weak to bring them back under control. To save their own skin, congressional Republicans need to rethink their support and protection of Donald Trump. Doing so might cost them their seats anyway, but it would preserve their dignity.