Barring a reversal by recount, it appears that Democrat Doug Jones has defeated Republican Roy Moore in Alabama's special election to fill the Senate vacancy left by Jeff Sessions' appointment as attorney general.
Jones did not win a full six–year term. He was only elected to finish the unexpired portion of Sessions' term. If he chooses to seek a full term, he will have to do so in 2020.
In that regard, he is much like Republican Scott Brown, who won a special election in Massachusetts in 2010 to complete the term of Sen. Edward Kennedy. Kennedy died in office in August 2009, and Brown was elected to serve the last two years of his term.
The dynamics of the elections differ, but the overriding similarity is the fact that both states elected nominees from the parties that had not been successful in those states for a long time. It was especially shocking in Massachusetts, I suppose, since that Senate seat had been held by Kennedys for more than half a century — and Massachusetts had given nearly 62% of its vote to Barack Obama in 2008 — but it is no less shocking in Alabama, where Donald Trump received 62% of the vote in 2016.
Pundits are looking for clues to the political future, just as they did in 2010. I am inclined to reach the same conclusions now as I did then.
In 2010 I wrote the following: "I see no way that yesterday's election will not be a factor in all the other races that will be held this year." I feel that way today — but I have no more of an idea of the extent than I did then.
The circumstances could hardly be more different. A cloud of controversy hung over Moore in the last month of the campaign; the extent to which that contributed to his defeat remains to be determined, but its influence cannot be denied. There was no such cloud hanging over Martha Coakley when she lost to Brown in 2010; apparently she simply took victory for granted. She tried unsuccessfully to correct her shortcomings a few years later when she sought the governor's office and lost to the Republican nominee. Was Coakley the problem? Or was the party the problem?
The same question could be asked about Moore and the special election in Alabama.
As a harbinger of things to come, the Massachusetts election may have given Democrats — who had been anticipating seizing full control of the government after Obama became the first black man to be elected president and they achieved filibuster–proof status in the Senate with the election of Al Franken in Minnesota and Arlen Specter's party switch in Pennsylvania — a glimpse into a grim future.
The Democrats didn't lose control of the Senate in 2010, but they came close. Going into the election, the party held 58 seats (which, when combined with two independents who caucused with them, provided them with their filibuster–proof status) and emerged from it with 51 seats — still a majority but greatly diminished — and fully vulnerable to a Republican filibuster.
The 2010 midterms are not remembered in history for the outcome in the Senate races, though. What is remembered is the fact that Republicans turned a 79–seat deficit in the House into a 49–seat advantage. They have held the majority in the House ever since.
As a harbinger of things that may be yet to come, the Alabama election may have done the same thing for Republicans. The question is whether the GOP will be wise enough to heed its warning.
I don't know if Democrats can be competitive in enough House districts to pull off the kind of wave the Republicans achieved in 2010. Based on what I have seen, they may be fortunate to grab a narrow majority if they claim one at all.
Republicans don't need to lose as many Senate seats in 2018 as Democrats lost in 2010 to lose control of the chamber — and, as I have mentioned before, the historical tide of midterms runs against the party in the White House.
But until Tuesday, the Democrats faced an uphill struggle in trying to capture the Senate. Only one–third of the senators are on the ballot in a given election year — unless a special election has been called because a senator died or resigned before his/her term was completed. In this cycle, the vast majority of senators whose seats are on the ballot in 2018 are Democrats. Of those senators whose seats must be defended in 2018, only one incumbent Republican senator comes from a state that voted for Hillary Clinton whereas 10 incumbent Democrats must face the voters in states that supported Donald Trump.
With their upset victory in Alabama Democrats need only two more seats to claim a majority in the Senate for the last two years of Trump's term. That is more plausible now — but not necessarily more probable.
Regardless of whether Democrats can seize a Senate majority next year, even a short–term one, the Republicans' agenda is in jeopardy. If American politics has made anything clear in the last decade or so, it is that the voters want a change; as Republicans seemed to offer what they wanted, the voters gradually turned over the levers of government to them.
But the political pendulum is always moving in America. The Republicans' already slim majority in the Senate will shrink in January when Jones is seated, which gives them a few weeks to accomplish whatever they can. Given their track record this year, though, getting anything done seems unlikely.
Voters seem to have developed a rather limited tolerance for political performance in recent years. Nonperformance may fare worse.
Until Tuesday, I had not seen anything in any of the special elections that surprised me. All the House seats that were vacant because their representatives had been appointed to positions in the administration were in red states. Democrats made a lot of noise about being competitive in those districts, but ultimately they lost every special election.
Then in November the first statewide races in the Trump era were held — in New Jersey and Virginia, states that elect their governors in the years immediately following presidential elections. After decades of voting for Republicans, Virginia (where governors are prohibited by law from seeking re–election) has been trending blue. Three of its last four governors have been Democrats, and it has voted Democratic in three consecutive presidential elections. Even though Republicans put up a good front about being competitive in the governor's race, I wasn't surprised when the Democrat won.
Nor was I surprised when the Democrat won in New Jersey. Term–limited Republican incumbent Chris Christie is about as popular as Richard Nixon was just before he resigned the presidency, and the Republican nominee had to carry that toxic baggage. No, I wasn't surprised by the outcome there, either.
But Tuesday's special election in Alabama did surprise me.
I realize that the circumstances had a lot to do with it. The decades–old charges of sexual harassment against Moore appear to have done enough damage to permit Jones to win by about 20,000 votes out of more than 1.3 million cast — even though no charges were substantiated and most were suspect.
Perhaps, as conservative commentator Ann Coulter observes, this outcome opens the door for Rep. Mo Brooks to reclaim the seat for the Republicans in 2020.
That wouldn't be unprecedented. Two years after Brown won Kennedy's seat, he was defeated in a bid for a full six–year term — by Elizabeth Warren, who is now considered a leading contender for the Democrats' next presidential nomination.
I'm not saying Brooks is a future presidential prospect. But in 2020 he would have Trump's coattails to ride in the general election — and that will almost certainly help in Alabama.