The circumstances probably sound familiar: there’s a Senate special election in a reliably partisan state that always votes the same way. Before the race even begins, the conventional wisdom takes root: the contest is over before it starts.
The first-year president, who won that state with ease a year earlier, assumes his party’s candidate will prevail and help advance his agenda on Capitol Hill. Polls, however, start hinting at a surprisingly competitive race. The president, just shy of 12 months in office, starts scrambling to support his candidate, urging the state’s voters – with whom he is fairly popular – not to undermine his plans by backing the other party.
But the appeals fall short. In an upset that captures the nation’s attention, and stuns political observers everywhere, the reliably partisan state that always votes the same way does the unexpected.
I’m referring, of course, to the Senate special election in Massachusetts in January 2010.
After Republican Scott Brown prevailed in one the nation’s bluest states, then-Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) declared, “There’s going to be a tendency on the part of [Democrats] to be in denial about all this, [but] if you lose Massachusetts and that’s not a wake-up call, there’s no hope of waking up.”Now look at that sentence again, but replace “Democrats” with “Republicans,” and “Massachusetts” with “Alabama.”
There’s no shortage of angles to Sen.-elect Doug Jones’ (D) upset victory over Roy Moore (R), but near the top of the list is the impact the election will have on the broader landscape – because Alabama, to everyone’s surprise, has jolted the political world.
In the Republican-led Senate, with 52 GOP senators, opponents of Donald Trump’s agenda have engaged in desperate searches to find three Republicans willing to break party ranks and derail the most egregious bills and nominees. Once Jones is seated – it’ll reportedly take a couple of weeks for Alabama to officially certify the results – the Senate will become a 51-49 chamber, and only two GOP senators can defeat far-right priorities.
Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) are now two of the most powerful people in the United States.
But let’s also not forget the 2018 midterms, because the magic number for Democrats to retake the Senate majority just shrunk, too. The path isn’t wide, but it’s visible: if Democratic incumbents can hang on to their seats, and the party flips seats in Nevada and Arizona, the Senate will no longer be under Republican control.
I can appreciate why some, especially on the right, will make the case that the Alabama race was a fluke. Roy Moore was a ridiculous candidate from the GOP’s crackpot wing, the argument will go, so his narrow defeat tells us very little about the direction of the prevailing political winds.
There may be some merit to this – major American political parties don’t usually nominate accused child molesters for the U.S. Senate – but I’d caution against dismissing the results as some kind of weird accident.
No matter what one thinks of Roy Moore and his radicalism, he’s an extension of Donald Trump’s style of GOP politics. We are, after all, talking about a Republican conspiracy theorist, who doesn’t know much about current events, who relied almost exclusively on his party’s extremist base, and who faced sexual misconduct accusations from several women.
That candidate ran in one of the nation’s reddest states – and he lost to a pro-choice Democrat.
There’s going to be a tendency on the part of some Republicans to be in denial about all this, but if they lose in Alabama and that’s not a wake-up call, there may be no hope of waking up.