Turnout would be the key to which of the wildly conflicting polls would best presage the result of Alabama’s special Senate election, wrote Republican consultant Patrick Ruffini earlier this week.
That proved correct. Statewide, turnout was down 37 percent from Nov. 2016. It was down less, 31 percent, in the five metropolitan counties around Birmingham, Huntsville, Montgomery, and Mobile, with their black communities and most of the state’s high-education whites.
Turnout was down by even less, 28 percent in the 10 black-majority rural counties. But it plunged 42 percent in the remaining 52 white-majority small counties. As the returns came in, you could see Republican Roy Moore reaching his target percentages — but not getting the raw votes he needed. President Trump carried those counties by 568,000 votes, Moore by only 149,000.
So Democrat Doug Jones, with big majorities in the metropolitan (61 percent) and black-majority (76 percent) counties, beat Moore 50 to 48 percent in a state that has voted 60 to 62 percent Republican in the last four presidential elections.
Roy Moore was a problematic candidate from the outset. He was twice ousted as state Supreme Court chief justice for disobeying federal court orders, in violation of the supremacy clause in Article VI of the Constitution. He also argued that Muslims could not take the oath of office, in violation of Article VI’s ban on religious tests for office. In 2012 he was elected chief justice with 52 percent, far behind Mitt Romney’s 61 percent.
Moore might still have won but for the Washington Post’s scrupulously vetted Nov. 9 story reporting that in his thirties, he dated teenage girls and allegedly sexually molested a 14-year-old. Moore’s denials were ham-handed and unpersuasive.
A majority of Alabama voters are evangelical Christians. Many white evangelicals were clearly sickened by the charges and stayed home, voted for Jones, or, like the state's senior Republican senator, Richard Shelby, wrote in someone else. Black evangelicals streamed into the polls in large numbers.
Liberal commentators like to chide white evangelicals by noting that many heavily white evangelical areas have high rates of divorce and unmarried births. The same could be said of black evangelicals. Nonetheless, many such voters lament breaches of traditional morality and seek candidates who uphold their higher, though often violated, standards.
There are multiple losers from the Alabama result. One is Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who promised to resign in “coming weeks” while denying misconduct far short of that alleged against Moore. Minnesota’s governor has announced his replacement and Franken will surely be gone soon.
Gone also are Democrats’ hopes of capitalizing on what would have been an inevitable ethics committee investigation of Roy Moore and, probably, a vote to expel him from the Senate. Washington's political media, which carefully avoided coverage of the bribery trial of Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, would have joined gleefully in portraying Moore as the face of the Republican party.
Republicans are losers as well. Their Senate majority is reduced to only 51-49, so Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can afford to lose only one colleague on partisan roll calls. Democrats’ chances of winning a Senate majority next year increase, though perhaps not to the 50-50 level some claim. They need plausible wins in marginal Nevada and Arizona, and their chances of saving their ten incumbents in states carried by Trump — five by wide margins, five narrowly — look better.
But the biggest loser is surely Breitbart News leader and former Trump aide Steve Bannon. He has been operating under the delusion that as a private citizen, he can spark a national rebellion aimed at somehow removing Mitch McConnell as majority leader. Now it’s clear that McConnell's only possible replacement is Democratic leader Chuck Schumer.
Bannon campaigned actively for Roy Moore, who would probably have won the nomination without his help, while Trump endorsed appointed incumbent Luther Strange. Given Jones’s small margin, it’s obvious that Strange or Congressman Mo Brooks, who finished third in the primary, would have won Tuesday.
Jones deserves credit for a flawless campaign, but his example of taking ultra-liberal positions on abortion and immigration may lead Democrats into nominating candidates in other races against less problematic Republicans. And would Jones have beaten Moore if the Senate was 50-50 and his vote had led to Democratic control?
Jones’s victory depended on multiple Republican mistakes, enumerated in an amusing tweetstorm by the New York Times’s Alexander Burns, much as a lock picker depends on getting every tumbler to fall into place. The result is consequential, but not always easy to replicate.