All the headlines about Doug Jones historic victory over Roy Moore in Alabama’s special election for Senate — and especially the ones calling it a humiliating defeat for President Donald Trump — have got to put a spring in Democrats’ steps as they look ahead toward next year’s midterm elections. To take back the Senate next year, Democrats had to win all the races that were likely to be competitive and pick up at least one long shot. Now they can cross “long shot” off that list. Meanwhile, unexpectedly high turnout among groups that tend to vote Democratic builds the case for a wave election. That African Americans made up a higher percentage of the electorate and broke more strongly for Mr. Jones, who is white, than they did for Barack Obama in 2012 is nothing short of remarkable.
But before Democrats start pouring champagne into their post-eleciton orange juice this morning, let’s put this race into some context. All we have proven here is that Republicans can lose a state-wide race in Alabama if they really, really try. Mr. Moore was all but unparalleled as a bad candidate, and not just because of the multiple credible reports that he preyed on teenage girls, including one who was just 14, when he was in his 30s. He had plenty of negatives long before the Washington Post meticulously exposed that stain on his character. He was, after all, twice kicked off the Alabama Supreme Court for defying the law. He once lamented the decline in family life since the end of slavery, and he argued that America would be better off without any amendments after the 10th, including, for example, the one that gave women the right to vote. He is so much an unrepentant, unreconstructed relic of Alabama’s past that even the state’s Republican senior senator, Richard Shelby, urged voters to write someone else’s name on their ballots.
Should his loss make much better but theoretically vulnerable Republican candidates like Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker or Vermont Gov. Phil Scott nervous? Probably not. In as much as President Trump injected himself into this race — endorsing Mr. Moore, pushing back against the reports of sexual impropriety, recording robocalls for him, tweeting out dire warnings about what electing Mr. Jones would mean, holding a rally just across the border in Florida — it wasn’t really about him. Exit polls showed just 19 percent of the electorate said one reason for their vote was to express their opposition to Mr. Trump, while a majority (51 percent) said the president wasn’t a factor. (The rest said they wanted to show support for the president. This is still Alabama, after all.) Democrats’ prospects in 2018 might actually have been better if Mr. Moore had won because they would be able to more convincingly hang him and his baggage around the neck of every Republican candidate. This result may for the moment be considered an embarrassment for President Trump, but it will be ancient history by next November.
In the meantime, Mr. Jones’ victory will, if anything, make the Republican tax bill worse. A mammoth piece of legislation that will fundamentally reorder aspects of American life is being cobbled together on the fly in a rush to get a bill on the president’s desk before Christmas. If Mr. Jones were to take his seat today, Republicans in the Senate would still have the 50 votes they need, even assuming Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker sticks with his no vote out of concerns for the $1.5 trillion the bill would add to the deficit over a decade. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine is considered at risk of defecting because of her concerns about the bill’s impact on the Affordable Care Act and the unlikelihood that House Republicans will accede to her demands to shore up the insurance marketplaces. But Mr. Jones won’t be seated today, tomorrow or quite possibly this year. It will take a couple of weeks at least for Alabama to certify the vote, and there are plenty of opportunities for the Republican powers-that-be in the state to slow-walk the process. Mr. Moore, who has not conceded defeat, could delay things even more if he insists on a recount. One is automatic if the result is within a half percentage point, which looks unlikely, but Mr. Moore can demand one if he is willing to pay for it. His campaign may not have the cash for that now, but if it means delaying Mr. Jones’ arrival in Washington until after the tax bill vote, here’s betting he could raise whatever he needs.
What can Democrats take away from this? It is possible for them to get their voters out in large numbers in years when Barack Obama is not at the top of the ticket. Doing so in midterm elections has historically been a challenge, and the fact that so many showed up for a special election in which only one race was on the ballot should be encouraging for them. But they won’t be able to count on Republicans putting up candidates as awful as Roy Moore. They still need to give people something to vote for, and for a party in only slightly less disarray than the Republicans, that’s no easy thing. Just like the elections earlier this year in Virginia and New Jersey, this victory shows Democrats that success is possible in 2018, not preordained.
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