By Jim Ellis
Dec. 15, 2017 — Predictably, Democrats and media commentators are promoting the premise that Doug Jones’ victory in Tuesday’s Alabama special Senate election is another sign that a Democratic wave is building to transform the minority party into one that wins control of at least one congressional chamber next year. But the actual numbers do not provide evidence for such an analysis.
In actuality, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) may have succinctly and correctly described what happened in the Alabama election, which caused Republicans to lose one of their safest seats in the nation. During an interview with NBC News, Sen. Johnson simply said, “Alabamians didn’t want somebody who dated 14-year-old girls.”
Looking at the actual figures, there is more supporting data for the supposition that Jones’ win is more likely due to Republican defections from former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, rather than a massive increase in Democratic turnout. While the Alabama special did feature a higher turnout than the last midterm election (2014), we also saw this phenomenon occur in two earlier special elections: the Montana at-large and GA-6 congressional contests. Republicans won both of those votes, proving that the GOP base was sufficiently energized in those two places to withstand increased Democratic turnout. But, Alabama doesn’t fit that same model either in the mode of Republican loyalty or an energized Democratic base.
The Alabama special Senate turnout increased 13.9 percent over the vote for governor in the most recent midterm election, 2014. In that electoral contest, then-Gov. Robert Bentley (R) was re-elected to a second term, defeating former Congressman Parker Griffith (D), 64-36 percent, amassing 750,231 votes. On Tuesday, Jones defeated Moore, 671,151 votes to 650,436. Therefore, Judge Moore finished almost exactly 100,000 votes behind Bentley’s performance three years earlier even though more people voted in the latter election.
In his victorious 2016 Alabama performance, President Trump attracted 1,318,255 votes, far beyond Moore and even Bentley. In fact, Judge Moore attracted only 49.3 percent of the vote Trump received. Conversely, Jones’ 671,151 votes represents 92 percent of Hillary Clinton’s total Alabama vote. This provides us some further evidence to argue that the Jones’ victory margin is attributed more from Republicans deserting their tainted nominee, rather than an overly large number of low propensity Democratic voters returning to the polls.
Another piece of supporting information comes from examining how the counties voted and comparing them to the Bentley gubernatorial election. In 2014, gubernatorial challenger Griffith carried 13 counties, obviously the state’s bedrock Democratic counties because the overall result was a landslide GOP victory. In this current Senate election, however, Senator-Elect Jones carried 42 of Alabama’s 67 counties.
To further support the finding that Democratic turnout was not substantially higher than Republican, if at all, the participation level in the 13 bedrock counties was up 11.3 percent, which is just about 2-1/2 points below the statewide increased turnout factor (13.9 percent), again when compared to the 2014 midterm election. On the other hand, the six most populous counties (Jefferson, Madison, Mobile, Montgomery, Shelby, and Tuscaloosa) saw a turnout surge of 27.4 percent in comparison to 2014.
In Tuesday’s election, Jones carried all but Shelby County among the most populous local entities, while former Gov. Bentley won all but Montgomery three years ago. This, again, gives us more backing for the claim that disaffected Republican voters flocking to Jones is a stronger reason to explain the upset victory rather than saying Democratic turnout was abnormally high.
Wednesday, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) announced that he will appoint Lt. Gov. Tina Smith (D) to the US Senate when incumbent Al Franken (D) resigns his position, now reportedly in early January.
The move is not a surprising one, since political speculation had been promoting the Smith appointment since Sen. Franken made his departure announcement. What has transformed differently than expected is Smith’s future candidate status.
Originally, it was believed that she would serve as a caretaker incumbent and not enter the 2018 special election. The winner of that future contest will serve the final two years of the current term. Senator-designate Smith’s announcement statement made clear her intentions, and she has already declared herself a candidate for the special election even before being sworn in as the interim incumbent.
Immediately upon hearing about her plans, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minneapolis) said he would not enter the special Senate election. As the appointed incumbent, Sen. Smith should have a major advantage to win the party nomination in convention. The likely early scenario would pit her against a strong Republican candidate, as the GOP is expected to make a concerted effort to convert this seat next year.