Doug Jones’ historic win in Alabama has Democrats buzzing about their improved chances of retaking the Senate and applying some of the same tactics to other key races in 2018.
Democrats pulled off a once-unthinkable feat Tuesday night, winning a Senate seat in the deep red South by keeping the race as local as possible while controversial Republican candidate Roy Moore garnered national attention daily.
The morning after the special election, Senate Democrats were eager to cast the victory in Alabama as a direct reaction to not just Moore — a former judge accused of molesting a 14-year-old and who yearned for a time he considered better for the country "even though we had slavery" — but to President Trump and the GOP agenda.
But there was more to Jones' success in Alabama. Democrats were careful, listening to local Democratic officials and operatives about what they needed and when. Put it all together and you get an Alabama Democrat elected to the Senate for the first time in more than 20 years.
“People are excited,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, himself a vulnerable Democrat up for re-election in Ohio next year.
“This race and the outcome is a repudiation of the president who campaigned intensely in the final days for his nominee, Roy Moore,” said Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. “It also shows momentum that we saw in November in Virginia. We’ve seen it in multiple races across the country continuing on through Alabama and it does create momentum that will carry on forward to November 2018.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., echoed that assessment, pushing back against Republicans who say they lost because of Moore and Moore alone.
“It was not simply Roy Moore’s conduct,” Schumer said. “There is a great discontent with the way Donald Trump has conducted his presidency and there’s a great deal of discontent about the policies the Republicans are pursuing.”
Though the path to capturing the Senate looks better than ever for Democrats, strategists warned that the party has a long way to go to win in 2018.
“Simple math is that it’s easier for Democrats to take two seats than to take three,” said Preston Elliott, former deputy executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “But the math is still challenging.”
If there’s a takeaway from Alabama, Elliott said, it’s that “partisanship helps set the groundwork, but it doesn’t finish the job.” Yes, Trump’s presidency riled up Democrats, but it isn’t enough to turn out the base.
Rodell Mollineau, a veteran Democratic strategist and co-founder of the consulting firm Rokk Solutions, sees Alabama as more of a bubble. Alabama will help energize Democrats, “focus them,” and drive fundraising, he said, but “we still have to be perfect.”
“Republicans are reeling but that doesn’t mean they’ll pack up their bags; they’re going to spend a lot of money and a lot of resources,” Mollineau said. “We still have to protect the red-state Democrats.”
Mollineau cautioned Democrats to be “cognizant” of the different electorate Democrats running for re-election or for the first time in red states face.
“We have to be supportive of those Democrats as they do what they need to solidify their base and bring over disaffected Republicans and independents,” he said, referring to Democratic senators like Brown, and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Claire McCaskill of Missouri. “It would be wise for National Democrats to allow these senators...the room to do what they need to win.”
National Democrats did that for Jones. And if high-profile Democrats did fly in from out of state to rally for Jones, they weren’t ones who carried negative weight with them.
“Throughout this campaign it’s been an Alabama campaign all the way,” Schumer said Wednesday. “Whenever they’ve asked for help we’ve given it to them but It was of, by, and for Alabamans.”
Learning from special elections earlier this year, national Democrats discreetly flew into Alabama, careful not to draw too much attention. Immediately after the November elections where Democrats saw major gains in Virginia and New Jersey, DNC Chairman Tom Perez remained quiet about the party’s plan for Alabama. Asked by reporters if the DNC would invest money in the state after seeing historic wins in Virginia, Perez wouldn’t say.
The truth: the DNC entered Alabama before September.
“We operated below the radar screen because that was in the best interest of the race,” Perez said on a call with reporters. “Make no mistake about it we were below the radar screen but we were present. We were present prior to the Republican primary because we knew we did not have a day to squander.”
The DNC spent nearly $1 million in Alabama, directing that money primarily to get out the vote among African Americans and millennials.
Rep. Terry Sewell, D-Ala., said the DNC’s work was critical to Jones’ win. After the the special House elections in Georgia and South Carolina earlier this year, Sewell said Democrats learned that the “south generally does not like to nationalize.”
“One of the lessons learned from those earlier races is that Alabamians don’t want to be told what to do,” she said. “So it was really important to have Alabamians speaking to Alabamians.”
Sewell said bringing in voices like Rep. John Lewis, who is from Troy, Alabama, or Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., as a closer made all the difference.
Democrats were tactical and smart in their use of surrogates. Whether it was Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, or Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, those stumping for Jones were popular among Democrats and African Americans but not strong bogeymen on the Right.
Former President Obama recorded carefully targeted robocalls, designed to boost African-American and Democratic voter turnout. But he did not appear in Alabama, a state where he never broke 40 percent of the vote.
Coordination was key, and it’s something that’s been lacking for Democrats in previous races. Sewell admitted that the DNC and national Democrats don’t usually listen to local officials, but this time they did.
“The DNC came in and listened to the elected officials on the ground who said we don’t need any more media money we need GOTV money and we need it in these areas,” Sewell said, referring to targeted efforts to get out the vote. “Another lesson learned is that we have to listen to our people we have to listen to the local folks and we did that.”
Sewell said the DSCC spent money on direct mail, on TV, and on black radio stations and the DNC concentrated on getting out the vote “right when we needed it." The DNC hired a local neighborhood association official, Sewell said, instead of dropping an outside team all over Alabama. Perez and DNC vice-chair Keith Ellison met with the Congressional Black Caucus and separately with Sewell early on, she said, asking for names of people to hire in specific neighborhoods.
“It was really the DNC...that really came in and listened,” she said.