Do Democrats have a new roadmap to victory?
Posted December 13, 2017 10:50 a.m. EST
(CNN) — Democrats began the year with a string of frustrating special election defeats and a feeling that the party, shell-shocked by 2016 and lacking ideas for 2018, was doomed to further losses and increasingly caustic internal bickering.
Fast forward to mid-December and the narrative has been turned on its head. Though many of the divisions that roiled the party remain unresolved, sweeping victories in Virginia last month, along with a run of down ballot wins across the country, had the party poised to ride a building wave into next year's midterm elections.
And then came Alabama.
Doug Jones's win in the special Senate election on Tuesday, the first for an Alabama Democrat in more than two decades, widened the party's ambitions and set off a more welcome -- and cordial -- discussion about where to go next and how to get there. The question now: Did the Jones campaign provide a roadmap for Democrats to states and districts so long deemed off-limits to liberal politicians?
The short answer is... still complicated. While the outlines of a mobilized, Democratic coalition appear to be forming, it's difficult to say where Jones's luck -- mostly in the form of all things Roy Moore -- gave way to the shrewd strategic decisions made by his campaign.
Democrats improved on their margins with African-Americans, college-educated whites and younger voters, especially. This same coalition recently carried candidates in the elections in Virginia and New Jersey as well. Democrats, regardless of where they run, can take a few fundamental lessons from Alabama and beyond.
"When we fight, we win," was the message from Maria Urbina, political director for the Indivisible Project, in an email soon after the contest was called for Jones. "Today's victory in Alabama is proof that progressives should be competing everywhere."
This is not a universally-held belief. For years, Democrats poured the lion's share of their high profile efforts -- and cash reserves -- into presidential politics. Candidate recruitment and other key pieces of electoral infrastructure, especially in deep red states, were mostly dismissed as an afterthought.
The Alabama model
Jones, in part because of the unique nature of his candidacy, got a massive boost from Democratic donors, small and large, around the country. Perhaps more importantly, he benefited from a grassroots surge that offered tailwinds in a city like Birmingham, where he needed to come out ahead by a significant margin to have any chance of a statewide win.
"It is imperative to cultivate relationships with the voters at the local level in States over the long haul," Our Revolution president Nina Turner said on Wednesday. She and members of the Birmingham chapter of the organization had gone door-to-door in the city, Alabama's largest, a few months earlier in support of the young progressive Randall Woodfin, who duly unseated an incumbent Democratic mayor in a nonpartisan election runoff.
Black voters comprised 29% of the Alabama electorate on Tuesday and went for Jones by 92 points, according to exit polling. Many of the state's black voters live in the state's urban centers, like Birmingham, where they came out strongly for Jones.
They also hail from less populated, rural parts, like the state's "Black Belt," where Democrats took their pitch. Reaching out to these less-central areas became a rallying cry for Democrats during the campaign. The proportion of black voters for Jones surpassed those seen by then-President Barack Obama. In 2012, African Americans made up 28% of voters and Obama won them by 91 points. 98% of black women voted for Jones, according to exit polls.
Joe Dinkin, national communications director for the Working Families Party, credited Jones for "running a very serious campaign" from well before the allegations of sexual abuse by Moore were first reported. If he hadn't, Dinkin said, "it would have been too late to start" when the scandal broke.
The takeaway: it's tough to hit a home run -- a grand slam, in this case -- if there's no one standing in the batter's box. When Republicans grooved their pitch in Alabama, the Democrats were poised to swing away.
But on policy, Jones and his campaign did more than show up. The accusations against Moore, paired with his long history of extreme or offensive words, mostly drowned out for national audiences the message Jones spent months delivering on the ground. In particular, he repeatedly slammed Moore and Republicans on health care. In his victory speech, Jones even called on the Senate to immediately reauthorize the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP).
"I have this challenge to my future colleagues in Washington," he said. "Don't wait on me...Take this opportunity in light of this election and go ahead and fund that CHIP program before I get up there."
On the trail, Jones defended Obamacare. "Repeal and replace is a political slogan," he said in November. "It's not something that's workable."
A critical contingent Democrats turned for them supports that message. Despite Republicans' opposition to Obamacare, it's become popular among white, college-educated voters. A Fox News poll in October found that more than 50% of white-college educated voters have a favorable opinion of the bill. Just over 40% have an unfavorable opinion.
According to exit polls, Moore won white college graduates by a healthy 17-point spread. But that's nothing in Alabama politics. Romney won that group by 59 points.
CHIP also became a hot issue. "No policy issue cut more deeply in this race than CHIP," MoveOn.org Washington Director Ben Wikler said in a text late Tuesday night. "Moore's ads and speeches, to voters black and white alike, hammered on Moore's refusal to commit to reauthorizing it. Voters don't want to take health coverage away from kids."
Jones was also reticent to get into open conversation about President Donald Trump. And with a few notable exceptions, he mostly avoided being seen with or discussing the support of national Democrats, like Obama, who recorded a robo-call for him shortly before the vote.
"He didn't mention Trump, he didn't even mention Moore," former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm said on CNN after the race was called. "He was all about Alabama and what he was going to do for them. Democrats take heed."
But that's easier said than done. The tribal nature of modern politics means there are fewer swing voters to sway, and any give on a strict partisan line can mean deflating the base.
"To win in a state like Alabama meant producing higher turnout among the Democratic base vote and voters of color, and also contesting and trying to persuade voters outside the base at the same time," Dinkin said. "It's not an either-or. You cannot afford to neglect your base, and you can't afford to leave everyone else to the opposition."
Can Democrats' winning formula work in other states?
Following in the path carved out by Jones and the Virginia Democrats will require discipline and, in certain cases, a willingness to spend and work against the odds. Candidates in red states, like Archie Parnell, the South Carolina congressional candidate who narrowly lost a special election this year, but is running again in 2018, believe the Alabama result could signal a tipping point.
"You can no longer cover your lack of character with a partisan banner," Parnell said in a statement Tuesday. "Voters are tired of being divided by race, religion, gender, or any other superficial difference."
The upside to this approach is the opportunity to build a lasting coalition that spans demographics, while the Republican base is increasingly limited by an older, primarily white demographic. That base is shrinking and, as seen in Alabama, can be narrower in its policy ambitions.
The question for Democrats after Alabama is whether they can afford to ignore anyone, anywhere -- or count on historically supportive demographics without providing a clear and compelling message to drive them to the polls.
"Highlighting the sins of the Republicans we're challenging is only half the job," Democratic strategist Lis Smith said. "Jones' campaign understood that it wasn't enough to disqualify Moore -- they had to give the people of Alabama a reason to vote for him. That is why he is now the Senator-elect from Alabama."