Suzanne Lynch: Is Alabama the beginning of the end for Trumpism?

African-Americans and educated suburbanites voted Doug Jones to victory

Flags in support of President Donald Trump for sale ahead of the failed campaign rally for Roy Moore, Republican candidate for Alabama. Photograph: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

Flags in support of President Donald Trump for sale ahead of the failed campaign rally for Roy Moore, Republican candidate for Alabama. Photograph: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

 

Christmas came early for the Democratic Party this week as Doug Jones, the Democratic candidate in the Alabama senate election swept to victory, beating Republican rival Roy Moore.

The unexpected victory in the deeply conservative state has rattled Republicans and opened up serious questions about the legitimacy of President Donald Trump who backed Roy Moore in defiance of the advice of most of his party.

Jones’s electoral upset has also re-energized the Democratic Party, breathing hope into the party’s quest to reclaim control of Congress in next year’s midterm elections.

Democrats were already in a buoyant move following a series of state and gubernatorial elections last month in New Jersey and Virginia. In addition to returning two Democratic governors on November 7th, Democrats made historic gains in Virginia state elections, wiping out the Republican majority in the state legislature. The results were a welcome development for the party which performed well, but not well enough, to win special elections in Georgia and Montana earlier in the year.

But is talk of the beginning of the end for the Trump presidency premature?

Undoubtedly, the Alabama result is a major boost for Democrats and a blow to Republicans, who have also seen their wafer-thin majority in the Senate reduced even further.

The fact that a Democrat could win in such a Republican stronghold as Alabama is a measure of the strength of Democratic engagement in the country, piquing hopes that other red districts could turn blue next year.

But Roy Moore was an exceptionally flawed candidate – he was twice removed from the bench while chief justice of the Alabama supreme court and faced allegations of child molestation throughout the campaign. Republicans are unlikely to make the same mistake next year when they pick their candidates to run in the mid-terms.

‘Not an outlier’

The party itself is confident however. “Alabama’s not an outlier – it’s a trend,” said Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Hillary Clinton tweeted “if Democrats can win in Alabama, we can – and must – compete everywhere. Onward!”

So what are the Democratic chances next year and can Alabama’s result be replicated nationally? Before this week’s election, the common wisdom was that Democrats had more chance of retaking the House of Representatives than the Senate. Much of the reason was simply down to electoral mathematics – Democrats are defending more seats than Republicans. A third of the Senate’s 100 seats are up for grabs, but 25 of these are held by Democrat or Democrat-leaning Independents. More specifically, 10 of those are in regions that Trump won in 2016, making their task difficult. But this week’s result has raised speculation that the Senate, once seen as out of reach, could be in the running, with states like Arizona, Nevada and even Tennessee possible targets.

As Democratic strategists start to think about where to concentrate their money and resources next year, strategists point to the case of Tennessee, where a strong Democrat candidate – in this case former governor Phil Bredesen – is running. He could be in with a chance of winning in a state that voted heavily for Trump last year and which hasn’t sent a Democratic senator to Washington in more than 20 years.

On the house side, all 435 seats of the House of Representatives are up for grabs. In order to regain control, Democrats would need to win 24 seats in addition to the 194 seats they currently hold. Strategists believe this is very possible. At least 20 seats currently held by Republicans are in districts that Hillary Clinton won last year, suggesting a strong Democratic vote for the taking. A sizeable number of Republican members of Congress have also announced their retirement which should also benefit Democrats.

But the real worry for Republicans in recent days has been some of the deeper voter trends that emerged from the Alabama election.

Doug Jones was propelled to victory by a high turnout of African American voters and educated suburban voters – exactly the trend that was evident in last month’s elections in Virginia.

More worryingly for Republicans, many of the districts that voted for Trump by large percentages switched to Democrat, suggesting that the president’s unpopularity may be having an impact on voters’ behaviour, even in staunchly Republican territory. While Trump’s base remains loyal, his low ratings nationally may be swaying more moderate suburban Republicans to switch their vote. Coupled with a re-energised Democratic base, this could spell serious trouble for Republicans in next November’s midterm elections.

Schism

There is still time, however, for Republicans to respond to this week’s defeat. One of the outcomes of the Alabama election is that the Republican Party may have learned its lesson. The defeat of Moore has succeeded in resolving for now one a schism that has convulsed the party since Trump’s election – the battle between establishment Republicans and the kind of firebrand politician represented by Trump for the heart of the party. While Steve Bannon is still likely to run as insurgent candidate in Republican primaries next year, even Trump seemed to concede on Twitter this week the Moore defeat showed the importance of picking the right candidate.

Even so, the prospect that Republicans may now be facing a fight in states that they once believed were solidly theirs will force the party to invest time, money and resources in states that they previously thought they could win, diverting resources from other important electoral races.

As both parties square up for next year’s elections, this week’s shock result in Alabama has thrown all political certainties into the air. The year of 2018 promises to be interesting.

Suzanne Lynch is Washington Correspondent

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