Just how big an earthquake was Doug Jones’ victory? It’s huge that Alabama will have a Democratic senator. And for fans of that whole “moral arc of the universe bending toward justice” thing, the fact that the man who prosecuted the perpetrators of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing beat a man who yearned for the unifying old days of slavery is beyond satisfying.
At the same time, let’s be honest. A different Republican, Luther Strange or Mo Brooks or anyone who wasn’t an accused pedophile, would have won the election by double digits. But Alabama Republicans didn’t choose those Republicans. They chose this Republican. They chose Roy Moore. And it isn’t crazy to think that other Republican voters in other red states may choose other Roy Moores.
And so the question: Can Democrats compete for Senate seats now in red states, even in the Deep South? They can and they should, but only if they can run as Jones ran: as a Democrat, and not as a neo-Republican who spends the whole campaign distancing him or herself from the national party.
That was perhaps the most gratifying thing about Jones’ win. He ran as a Democrat. A moderate Democrat, but a Democrat. He expressed support for the following: a higher minimum wage; a health care public option; the science of climate change; LGBT equality; border security but without any beautiful walls; criminal justice reform; and most strikingly of all in that state, abortion rights. “I’m not in favor of anything that’s going to infringe on a woman’s right, and her freedom to choose,” he told Chuck Todd in late September. And basically, he stuck to it. He played to the state on guns, but even there he spoke of the need to shore up background checks. He was not Republican-lite.
Three years ago, I wrote a column urging Democrats to forget about the South. It attracted some attention. Some of the rhetoric was a bit on the florid side. I wrote it in a foul mood the morning after Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu lost her re-election bid, even after she’d turned cartwheels to distance herself from her party and Barack Obama. I wrote that if Democratic candidates have to do that to win elective office—that is, all but promise their constituents that they won’t act like Democrats if elected—the party shouldn’t even bother and should spend its limited resources elsewhere.
But: If they can win the way Jones won, then that’s a whole different kettle of catfish. In that case, Democrats should by all means compete. Quick history lesson here. Today, or at least until Tuesday, we have thought of the South as a Democratic killing field, except for the majority-minority districts and perhaps the occasional district dominated by a college town. Right now, there are just seven white House members from 10 of the 11 states of the old Confederacy (I exclude Florida because from Orlando down, Florida is culturally different from the South). That’s out of 107 districts. And there are only two Democratic senators out of 20, and they’re both from Virginia, which is also culturally different (at least northern Virginia is, whence Mark Warner and Tim Kaine get the lion’s share of their votes).
It wasn’t always this way. As recently as the early George W. Bush years, Arkansas had two Democratic senators, Louisiana also two, North Carolina one, South Carolina one, and Georgia one. That wasn’t the 1960s. That was barely more than a decade ago. The wipeout happened in the late Bush and especially the early Obama years, because the Democrats did big-gummint health care and because well, you know, the president was, ah, from Hawaii.