By Sam Burnham
The outcome of the special election for the open Alabama Senate seat is the talk of the nation. The deeply red state is sending a Democrat to the Senate for the first time since 1992. When taken on face value alone, that is a shocking revelation that would cause unprecedented amounts of head scratching. Is Alabama changing? Is it "leaving the Stone Age?" Is it "joining the 21st Century?"
Reality is much more complex and requires you to understand Alabama, the voters, the candidates, and the times we live in. Having lived there for 4 years myself and having spent most of the rest of my life within 20 miles of the state, let me share some thoughts.
Like much of the rest of the nation, Alabama has it's struggle between urban and rural. with a few exceptions in the "Black Belt" region, you can look at a color coded electoral map of the state and find Huntsville, Birmingham, Montgomery, Mobile, and the college towns of Tuscaloosa and Auburn. Alabama is a largely rural state. It is small towns, farmland, schools with 400 kids counting K-12. It is state of churchgoers. It's a state of families with values that are rarely represented on TV or in movies. This isn't about them not joining the 21st century - it's about them not joining the 21st Century being marketed on Madison Avenue or along the Miracle Mile or on Hollywood Boulevard. "Leaving the Stone Age" is a "dog whistle", as the liberals put it, meaning to become liberal or begin to support the Democratic party. As much as Alyssa Milano and Corey Booker might want to believe otherwise, this isn't what happened in Alabama last night.
When you look at Doug Jones you see a politician who may not fit well into a typical Alabama Senate race. He would normally be a sacrificial lamb type that the Democratic Party put up to ensure a Republican didn't run unopposed. There is nothing glaringly wrong with him. There were no criminal or moral accusations against him. He gained convictions against former Klansmen in the 16th Baptist Church bombing. By all accounts he is just an average Democrat - a decent human with only his political beliefs to detract from his election success.
Roy Moore is a what you would get if the circus train derailed and crashed into the tent with all three rings going at the same time. He is someone who should have never been elevated past his local judicial seat in Gadsden. However, because he, like many in Congress today, was able to build a base that saw him as a strident defender of a besieged populace, he was able to go much further than his competency could support. He was vocal, abrasive, and didn't care who he offended in the process of defending Southern evangelicals and many of those folks love him for that.
Between those small liberal patches built in urban areas or around university campuses and the Moore base, you find folks who don't like Moore's rhetoric or the political stances of Doug Jones. Most of these people really found Moore distasteful long before any accusations of impropriety, before anyone knew he was banned from the mall, before he said he’d never heard of a popular mom and pop restaurant in his hometown. They could see through the facade of an attention junkie and didn't elect him as governor. Yesterday they did't elect him to the Senate. People who voted for "not Hillary Clinton" in 2016 voted for "not Roy Moore" yesterday - either by ballot or omission.
Now we come to the chorus of the outsiders - including Canadians singing songs trying to lecture Alabamians on the lessons of the Good Book. Alabama still doesn't need them around. A state which prides itself with the motto "We Dare Defend Our Rights" is much more liable to take such scoldings as a challenge. Calling the people dumb or backwards can trigger them to action, owning the label and doing the exact opposite of what carpetbaggers and foreigners urge them to do. And that is one reason Moore was so close.
Here are some takeaways.
- The margin of victory was smaller than the number of write-ins. These were conscience votes. These were normally Republican, or at least Conservative, voters who refused to vote for Moore. No one had any reason to protest Doug Jones from the left.
- This is a partial term. This race was to choose a successor to Jeff Sessions and finish he term through 2020. Had Moore won, he would have needed to be "primaried" to be dislodged. The Alabama GOP can now anoint a candidate, just someone who is not a circus train wreck in the middle of a circus, to dislodge Jones handily in 2020. Then everything goes back to normal.
- The final numbers may have this outcome be within 1%. This is a dead heat that shows that Alabamians, as a whole are split over which is worse - allegations of sexual misconduct or support for abortion. That was the moral choice that these voters felt torn between. A race between a seedy pro-life wildman and a otherwise normal pro-choice candidate was a dead heat. That is the state of politics in Alabama in 2017.
- The hordes currently tweeting congratulatory statements such as "I knew you could do it" as if the state was a train trying to get over a mountain to finally elect a Democrat are how we wound up with Trump. Quit sending Alabama backhanded compliments. They didn't elect Doug Jones to impress you or gain your favor. They know how you really feel about them, regardless of what happened yesterday. And trust me, the feeling is quite mutual.
For the next 3 years the right to represent the State of Alabama in the Senate belongs to Doug Jones, and fairly won. The hope of Democrats lies in him convincing most of the people of the state that he represents their values in Washington. If, a big IF to be certain, he can, he will have a shot in 2020. If he is just another liberal face in the crowd, he'll be back in Mountain Brook three years from today with some stories for his grandkids.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire