washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

October 6: Trump Blunders Into the Virginia Governor’s Race

We’re now about a month out from Virginia’s gubernatorial election, one of the two being held this year. I looked at the latest developments at New York:

Yesterday morning the Washington Post released a new poll of the Virginia gubernatorial contest showing Democrat Ralph Northam blowing out to a 13-point lead over Republican Ed Gillespie among likely voters, by far the biggest lead he’s managed in a general election survey.

Early last evening Donald Trump took to Twitter with this nasty-gram:

Perhaps it was a coincidence, given the president’s spotty consumption of news and other information that is not about his own self. But it’s likely some alarms went off in the White House about an impending Gillespie loss being treated (as off-year elections in Virginia and New Jersey often are after a change of administration in Washington) as a referendum on the Trump presidency. That would have gotten POTUS’s attention for sure. And the tweet itself, directly accusing the lieutenant governor of Virginia of “fighting for” a violent criminal gang, is not subtle.

We don’t know at this point whether the Gillespie campaign invited, or even had advance knowledge of, Trump’s intervention. The MS-13 smear Trump deployed does track Gillespie’s own borderline racist ads attacking Northam for breaking a tie in the State Senate against a bill that would preemptively outlaw “sanctuary cities” (Virginia has none now), which has little to do with MS-13, but whatever.

Gillespie has for the most part given his party’s president a wide berth in this race. That makes sense. Trump lost the state to Hillary Clinton by more than five points last year. According to Gallup, his job-approval ratio in Virginia over the first six months of his presidency averaged 39/56. The new Post poll showed Trump currently at 34/60 among the Old Dominion’s registered voters, with half of voters disapproving strongly of his job performance. In addition, Virginia has a history of rejecting gubernatorial candidates from the party that controls the White House: In the last ten gubernatorial elections, the White House party has lost nine (the only exception is actually the current, term-limited Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe).

So you wouldn’t figure that Trump leaping into the Virginia race would do much to help Gillespie, who has been in striking distance of Northam in most polls prior to the WaPo bombshell (in the RealClearPolitics average of recent polls, Northam’s lead is a modest 5.4 percent).

Still, the White House may be reinforcing a decision by Team Gillespie to go big on making this a “culture war” campaign. Not only are Virginia Republicans pounding the Democrat on his alleged sympathy for Hispanic criminals; they’re also trying to exploit the relatively positive feelings Virginians have toward Confederate monuments, the issue that blew up in Charlottesville this summer. This doesn’t necessarily reflect rampant racism: Virginia is saturated with Civil War monuments of all kinds (when I lived in the state, I passed through three Civil War battlegrounds on my daily commute to work). Gillespie’s primary opponent Corey Stewart, at one point Trump’s 2016 campaign manager in Virginia, made protecting Confederate monuments a signature issue and nearly upset the front-runner. Perhaps Gillespie now thinks such issues can work magic for him, too, along with fear of immigrants.

The bottom line is that, a month out, Northam has history and the polls on his side, along with a significant financial advantage. Making the race more explicitly a referendum on Trump will probably help him as well.


Trump Blunders Into the Virginia Governor’s Race

We’re now about a month out from Virginia’s gubernatorial election, one of the two being held this year. I looked at the latest developments at New York:

Yesterday morning the Washington Post released a new poll of the Virginia gubernatorial contest showing Democrat Ralph Northam blowing out to a 13-point lead over Republican Ed Gillespie among likely voters, by far the biggest lead he’s managed in a general election survey.

Early last evening Donald Trump took to Twitter with this nasty-gram:

Perhaps it was a coincidence, given the president’s spotty consumption of news and other information that is not about his own self. But it’s likely some alarms went off in the White House about an impending Gillespie loss being treated (as off-year elections in Virginia and New Jersey often are after a change of administration in Washington) as a referendum on the Trump presidency. That would have gotten POTUS’s attention for sure. And the tweet itself, directly accusing the lieutenant governor of Virginia of “fighting for” a violent criminal gang, is not subtle.

We don’t know at this point whether the Gillespie campaign invited, or even had advance knowledge of, Trump’s intervention. The MS-13 smear Trump deployed does track Gillespie’s own borderline racist ads attacking Northam for breaking a tie in the State Senate against a bill that would preemptively outlaw “sanctuary cities” (Virginia has none now), which has little to do with MS-13, but whatever.

Gillespie has for the most part given his party’s president a wide berth in this race. That makes sense. Trump lost the state to Hillary Clinton by more than five points last year. According to Gallup, his job-approval ratio in Virginia over the first six months of his presidency averaged 39/56. The new Post poll showed Trump currently at 34/60 among the Old Dominion’s registered voters, with half of voters disapproving strongly of his job performance. In addition, Virginia has a history of rejecting gubernatorial candidates from the party that controls the White House: In the last ten gubernatorial elections, the White House party has lost nine (the only exception is actually the current, term-limited Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe).

So you wouldn’t figure that Trump leaping into the Virginia race would do much to help Gillespie, who has been in striking distance of Northam in most polls prior to the WaPo bombshell (in the RealClearPolitics average of recent polls, Northam’s lead is a modest 5.4 percent).

Still, the White House may be reinforcing a decision by Team Gillespie to go big on making this a “culture war” campaign. Not only are Virginia Republicans pounding the Democrat on his alleged sympathy for Hispanic criminals; they’re also trying to exploit the relatively positive feelings Virginians have toward Confederate monuments, the issue that blew up in Charlottesville this summer. This doesn’t necessarily reflect rampant racism: Virginia is saturated with Civil War monuments of all kinds (when I lived in the state, I passed through three Civil War battlegrounds on my daily commute to work). Gillespie’s primary opponent Corey Stewart, at one point Trump’s 2016 campaign manager in Virginia, made protecting Confederate monuments a signature issue and nearly upset the front-runner. Perhaps Gillespie now thinks such issues can work magic for him, too, along with fear of immigrants.

The bottom line is that, a month out, Northam has history and the polls on his side, along with a significant financial advantage. Making the race more explicitly a referendum on Trump will probably help him as well.


October 5: No, Polarization Isn’t Just a Washington Thing

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in a new Pew Research report on parties and polarization. I wrote up some key findings for New York:

[T]here is an abiding belief among some academics and professional centrists that the warring tribes of Washington are fundamentally misrepresenting Americans who pretty much agree on the important things and wonder why we can’t just all get along.

The Pew Research Center now offers some fresh and abundant data illustrating the extent, nature, and implications of polarization among regular Americans. Pew’s central finding is that Americans are indeed much more polarized than they were in 1994, when they began asking the same questions to some of the same kinds of people.

“The divisions between Republicans and Democrats on fundamental political values – on government, race, immigration, national security, environmental protection and other areas – reached record levels during Barack Obama’s presidency. In Donald Trump’s first year as president, these gaps have grown even larger.

“And the magnitude of these differences dwarfs other divisions in society, along such lines as gender, race and ethnicity, religious observance or education.”

Much of the Pew data reinforces the hypothesis that we are experiencing the tail end of what one influential analyst called “The Partisan Sort,” the drift of liberals toward the Democratic Party and conservatives toward the Republican Party, severing ancient partisan ties based on ethnic loyalties and events as remote as the Great Depression or even the U.S. Civil War. Here’s one particularly rich finding:

“[I]n 1994 there was substantially more overlap between the two partisan groups than there is today: Just 64% of Republicans were to the right of the median Democrat, while 70% of Democrats were to the left of the median Republican. Put differently, in 1994 23% of Republicans were more liberal than the median Democrat; while 17% of Democrats were more conservative than the median Republican. Today, those numbers are just 1% and 3%, respectively.”

In other words, rank-and-file voters are separating into their “natural” parties just as much as are their representatives in Congress.

The murkier question about polarization is whether voters are becoming more extreme in their ideological leanings, not just following them into one party or the other. But Pew suggests our more consistently conservative and liberal party groupings are also becoming more liberal and conservative as they sort.

“[A]lthough many Americans continue to hold a mix of liberal and conservative views across different issue areas, that share has declined over time.”

It’s increasingly clear that the great object of traditional political persuasion, the “median voter” who holds positions equidistant from partisans and ideologues, is becoming a much less dominant element of the electorate.

There are obviously multiple ways to look at these phenomena. The most common is to wring hands and deplore both partisan and ideological polarization as preventing things from “getting done,” and as thwarting the natural goodness and reasonableness of Americans.

Another approach is to applaud polarization as creating political parties that consistently stand for important principles, and that aren’t just devoted to deal-cutting and constituency-tending. There was plenty of bipartisanship in the decades prior to the 1960s, much of it devoted to maintaining or turning a blind eye to Jim Crow, and supporting the kind of consensus foreign policy that led to the Vietnam War.

Still another approach is to examine the structural impediments to “getting things done” that don’t depend on a return to a lost, bipartisan “paradise,” whether it’s the filibuster, the creaky procedures for enacting legislation, or the dependence of the federal government on states and localities to implement national policies. Perhaps Democrats are presently rejoicing at the trouble Republicans are having in implementing a party agenda while controlling Congress and the presidency, but this ongoing fiasco also illustrates that “polarization” is not the only problem bedeviling democracy.

Love it or hate it, though, polarization is real, it isn’t a purely Washington phenomenon, and there’s no reason to think it’s going away any time soon.


No, Polarization Isn’t Just a Washington Thing

There’s a lot of interesting stuff in a new Pew Research report on parties and polarization. I wrote up some key findings for New York:

[T]here is an abiding belief among some academics and professional centrists that the warring tribes of Washington are fundamentally misrepresenting Americans who pretty much agree on the important things and wonder why we can’t just all get along.

The Pew Research Center now offers some fresh and abundant data illustrating the extent, nature, and implications of polarization among regular Americans. Pew’s central finding is that Americans are indeed much more polarized than they were in 1994, when they began asking the same questions to some of the same kinds of people.

“The divisions between Republicans and Democrats on fundamental political values – on government, race, immigration, national security, environmental protection and other areas – reached record levels during Barack Obama’s presidency. In Donald Trump’s first year as president, these gaps have grown even larger.

“And the magnitude of these differences dwarfs other divisions in society, along such lines as gender, race and ethnicity, religious observance or education.”

Much of the Pew data reinforces the hypothesis that we are experiencing the tail end of what one influential analyst called “The Partisan Sort,” the drift of liberals toward the Democratic Party and conservatives toward the Republican Party, severing ancient partisan ties based on ethnic loyalties and events as remote as the Great Depression or even the U.S. Civil War. Here’s one particularly rich finding:

“[I]n 1994 there was substantially more overlap between the two partisan groups than there is today: Just 64% of Republicans were to the right of the median Democrat, while 70% of Democrats were to the left of the median Republican. Put differently, in 1994 23% of Republicans were more liberal than the median Democrat; while 17% of Democrats were more conservative than the median Republican. Today, those numbers are just 1% and 3%, respectively.”

In other words, rank-and-file voters are separating into their “natural” parties just as much as are their representatives in Congress.

The murkier question about polarization is whether voters are becoming more extreme in their ideological leanings, not just following them into one party or the other. But Pew suggests our more consistently conservative and liberal party groupings are also becoming more liberal and conservative as they sort.

“[A]lthough many Americans continue to hold a mix of liberal and conservative views across different issue areas, that share has declined over time.”

It’s increasingly clear that the great object of traditional political persuasion, the “median voter” who holds positions equidistant from partisans and ideologues, is becoming a much less dominant element of the electorate.

There are obviously multiple ways to look at these phenomena. The most common is to wring hands and deplore both partisan and ideological polarization as preventing things from “getting done,” and as thwarting the natural goodness and reasonableness of Americans.

Another approach is to applaud polarization as creating political parties that consistently stand for important principles, and that aren’t just devoted to deal-cutting and constituency-tending. There was plenty of bipartisanship in the decades prior to the 1960s, much of it devoted to maintaining or turning a blind eye to Jim Crow, and supporting the kind of consensus foreign policy that led to the Vietnam War.

Still another approach is to examine the structural impediments to “getting things done” that don’t depend on a return to a lost, bipartisan “paradise,” whether it’s the filibuster, the creaky procedures for enacting legislation, or the dependence of the federal government on states and localities to implement national policies. Perhaps Democrats are presently rejoicing at the trouble Republicans are having in implementing a party agenda while controlling Congress and the presidency, but this ongoing fiasco also illustrates that “polarization” is not the only problem bedeviling democracy.

Love it or hate it, though, polarization is real, it isn’t a purely Washington phenomenon, and there’s no reason to think it’s going away any time soon.


September 29: Roy Moore’s Abortion Extremism Is Beyond Comparison

In the brief period since Roy Moore won the GOP Senate nomination in Alabama, conservatives have tried to paint Democratic nominee Doug Jones as an “extremist” on abortion policy. As I argued at New York. nobody’s an “extremist” like Roy Moore.

Roy Moore has staked out the most hard-core position imaginable on abortion, and has maintained an uncomfortably close relationship with activists who justify violence against abortion providers and punishment of women for exercising their right to choose. And that’s aside from his regular comments suggesting that legalized abortion and homosexuality have brought down divine wrath on America.

Wherever Doug Jones would draw the line between legal and illegal abortions, there is zero question where Roy Moore would draw it: He wants to make every abortion under any circumstances illegal from the moment of conception, and punish those who procure them, regardless of what the U.S. Supreme Court says. He made that clear not in some op-ed, but in an opinion from his position as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, in a 2014 case involving prosecuting a woman for endangering her fetus by using drugs:

“Because a human life with a full genetic endowment comes into existence at the moment of conception, the self-evident truth that ‘all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights’ encompasses the moment of conception. Legal recognition of the unborn as members of the human family derives ultimately from the laws of nature and of nature’s God, Who created human life in His image and protected it with the commandment: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Therefore, the interpretation of the word “child” in Alabama’s chemical-endangerment statute, § 26-15- 3.2, Ala. Code 1975, to include all human beings from the moment of conception is fully consistent with these first principles regarding life and law.”

As this quote illustrates, Moore is a leader in the “Personhood Movement,” which holds that from the moment of conception a zygote enjoys the full protections of the Equal Protection Clause, which precedes and preempts any claim by the woman involved. If there was any doubt about Moore’s position, it should have been removed by a 2012 amicus brief he and his Foundation for Moral Law signed in a U.S. Supreme Court case involving a proposed personhood constitutional amendment in Oklahoma. Moore and his group noted they were promoting a personhood initiative in Alabama similar to Oklahoma’s, and then argued:

“While Personhood laws may challenge the legitimacy of the so-called ‘right’ to abort that person under Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood, the Oklahoma Supreme Court, by blocking personhood protection for every preborn child, ‘threw the baby out with the bathwater’ and rejected the many other ways a state may protect the life and dignity of the preborn child.

“Finally, the Holy Scriptures provide additional support for the personhood of the preborn child. Though some interpretations of scriptural passages try to devalue the preborn, the Bible, rightly divided, consistently protects the life of preborn persons from murder and assault as equally as it does those already born.”

How extreme is the zygote-personhood position, which would arguably ban in vitro fertilization clinics and various forms of contraception? Extreme enough that initiatives to place personhood provisions into state constitutions have failed by large margins on the five occasions they’ve made it to the ballot: three times in Colorado, once in North Dakota, and perhaps most relevantly for Alabama, once in arch-conservative Mississippi.

Even though it had widespread support from Republican and even a few Democratic elected officials, Mississippi’s Amendment 26 was defeated by a 59–41 margin in 2011.

Roy Moore’s position on abortion was too extreme for Mississippi. Is it just right for Alabama? Perhaps that question should be answered before anyone starts picking apart Doug Jones’s interview answers. But without question, Jones needs to occupy more, not less, of the vast ground between Moore’s positions and those of regular Alabamians, who may frown on late-term abortions but don’t want to treat women as distrusted, ungodly bystanders in the reproductive process.


Roy Moore’s Abortion Extremism Is Beyond Comparison

In the brief period since Roy Moore won the GOP Senate nomination in Alabama, conservatives have tried to paint Democratic nominee Doug Jones as an “extremist” on abortion policy. As I argued at New York. nobody’s an “extremist” like Roy Moore.

Roy Moore has staked out the most hard-core position imaginable on abortion, and has maintained an uncomfortably close relationship with activists who justify violence against abortion providers and punishment of women for exercising their right to choose. And that’s aside from his regular comments suggesting that legalized abortion and homosexuality have brought down divine wrath on America.

Wherever Doug Jones would draw the line between legal and illegal abortions, there is zero question where Roy Moore would draw it: He wants to make every abortion under any circumstances illegal from the moment of conception, and punish those who procure them, regardless of what the U.S. Supreme Court says. He made that clear not in some op-ed, but in an opinion from his position as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, in a 2014 case involving prosecuting a woman for endangering her fetus by using drugs:

“Because a human life with a full genetic endowment comes into existence at the moment of conception, the self-evident truth that ‘all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights’ encompasses the moment of conception. Legal recognition of the unborn as members of the human family derives ultimately from the laws of nature and of nature’s God, Who created human life in His image and protected it with the commandment: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Therefore, the interpretation of the word “child” in Alabama’s chemical-endangerment statute, § 26-15- 3.2, Ala. Code 1975, to include all human beings from the moment of conception is fully consistent with these first principles regarding life and law.”

As this quote illustrates, Moore is a leader in the “Personhood Movement,” which holds that from the moment of conception a zygote enjoys the full protections of the Equal Protection Clause, which precedes and preempts any claim by the woman involved. If there was any doubt about Moore’s position, it should have been removed by a 2012 amicus brief he and his Foundation for Moral Law signed in a U.S. Supreme Court case involving a proposed personhood constitutional amendment in Oklahoma. Moore and his group noted they were promoting a personhood initiative in Alabama similar to Oklahoma’s, and then argued:

“While Personhood laws may challenge the legitimacy of the so-called ‘right’ to abort that person under Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood, the Oklahoma Supreme Court, by blocking personhood protection for every preborn child, ‘threw the baby out with the bathwater’ and rejected the many other ways a state may protect the life and dignity of the preborn child.

“Finally, the Holy Scriptures provide additional support for the personhood of the preborn child. Though some interpretations of scriptural passages try to devalue the preborn, the Bible, rightly divided, consistently protects the life of preborn persons from murder and assault as equally as it does those already born.”

How extreme is the zygote-personhood position, which would arguably ban in vitro fertilization clinics and various forms of contraception? Extreme enough that initiatives to place personhood provisions into state constitutions have failed by large margins on the five occasions they’ve made it to the ballot: three times in Colorado, once in North Dakota, and perhaps most relevantly for Alabama, once in arch-conservative Mississippi.

Even though it had widespread support from Republican and even a few Democratic elected officials, Mississippi’s Amendment 26 was defeated by a 59–41 margin in 2011.

Roy Moore’s position on abortion was too extreme for Mississippi. Is it just right for Alabama? Perhaps that question should be answered before anyone starts picking apart Doug Jones’s interview answers. But without question, Jones needs to occupy more, not less, of the vast ground between Moore’s positions and those of regular Alabamians, who may frown on late-term abortions but don’t want to treat women as distrusted, ungodly bystanders in the reproductive process.


September 28: How Doug Jones Might Upset Roy Moore in Alabama

After watching Judge Roy Moore dispatch GOP Senator Luther Strange in a Republican special election runoff, I took a long look at New York at the possibility of Democrat Doug Jones pulling off a general election upset. \

The bad news — and it’s really bad — for Democratic Senate nominee Doug Jones heading toward a December 12 special general election is that no one from his party has won a statewide election since 2008. And that was just the chairmanship of the Public Service Commission. The good news is that the one time it nearly happened since then (in 2012) the Republican candidate was Roy Moore.

That’s right: the Ten Commandments Judge, who had been stripped of the state’s Chief Justice’s gavel in 2003 for defying a federal court order to remove a giant monument to the Ten Commandments from his courtroom, and then lost two GOP gubernatorial primaries, made it back to the Chief Justice position five years ago by a narrow four-point margin over Democratic circuit court judge Bob Vance. As has generally been the case throughout Moore’s career, he was heavily outspent (better than six to one), but like the rest of the GOP ticket, won anyway.

Moore subsequently got into another fight with the federal judicial system, this time over compliance with the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision establishing a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. While he technically still holds his judicial office, in September 2016 he was suspended from the exercise of its powers until his term ends early in 2019.

The question now is whether Moore — who finished first in the GOP primary and then trounced incumbent Luther Strange in a runoff — is sufficiently controversial to enable Jones to break Alabama’s recently but firmly established mold of race-based partisan voting.

As in several other Deep South states, the tipping point where Republicans began routinely winning statewide and a majority of other contests in Alabama was in 2010, when the GOP conquered both state legislative chambers and every statewide position up for election. Before then, a coalition of 90 percent of African-Americans and 30–40 percent of white voters kept Democrats competitive, and even dominant at the state legislative level. Since then the Democratic share of the white vote in Alabama has regularly fallen below 20 percent; Barack Obama got around 10 percent in 2008 and 15 percent in 2012, according to exit polls (there were no exit polls in Alabama in 2016, but Donald Trump won a higher percentage of the total vote than did John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012, and it’s unlikely that enhanced margin came from African-Americans). Doug Jones is going to have to beat that performance significantly, while pulling off the difficult task of mobilizing minority voters in what is normally a low-turnout special election where Moore’s conservative Evangelical base will definitely show up.

One might normally think Jones could batten on embittered supporters of the GOP candidate Moore just beat. But it’s unclear there is a distinctive “Luther Strange vote.” Some voters probably pulled the lever for the incumbent because he was an incumbent, and others because the president and vice-president, along with the senior senator from Alabama (Richard Shelby), endorsed him. Moore is already getting solid GOP support, particularly from the White House.

There are, however, certainly Alabama Republicans who either don’t agree with Roy Moore’s theocratic views, and/or who fear he will damage the state’s image (and its attractiveness to transplants and investors) with the kind of extremist antics he’s performed so often in the past — but this time on the higher-profile platform of the U.S. Senate. Alabama, after all, is still sensitive to the hilarity surrounding their former governor (dubbed the Luv Guv) Robert Bentley, who was forced to resign after a lurid sex-and-corruption scandal. For reasons of his own, Luther Strange did not talk about Moore’s extremism during the primary and runoff (he tried, somewhat hilariously, to attack Moore as a “liberal” and a career politician). Doug Jones can and will, perhaps with quiet encouragement from the Alabama business community and other “respectable” opinion-leaders.

It is clear from the get-go that Jones understands Moore’s main vulnerability: In his initial statement on the general election, variations on the word “embarrassment” are used often:

“After years of embarrassing headlines about top public officials in this state, this race is about the people of Alabama and about choosing a candidate with character and integrity they can be proud of. I will never embarrass the people of Alabama.”

Jones’s own profile as the prosecutor of the 1963 Birmingham Church bombers certainly comports with what Alabamians would prefer to think about themselves. Beyond that, there are some things about the prospect of Roy Moore serving in the Senate that haven’t really been explored adequately. Is he going to ask his enemy Mitch McConnell for Jeff Sessions’s old seat on the Judiciary Committee? How appropriate would it be for a senator who has twice defied federal court orders to vote on confirmation of federal judges? And to what extent can a man who quite literally believes God Almighty is directing his career be expected to behave himself in Washington for the sake of his state’s reputation?

National Democrats have some decisions to make about Alabama. Putting a third GOP-held Senate seat into play (right now only Arizona and Nevada are deemed competitive) could convert 2018 from a purely defensive struggle for Senate Democrats into a drive — a long shot, but hardly impossible given the near-certainty of a midterm trend against the party controlling the White House — for actual control. Moore’s career-long aversion to fundraising could provide a real opening. But anything heavy-handed could help Judge Roy play the martyr and stimulate Alabama’s ideological and partisan juices in an unfortunate way for Doug Jones. The Democrat has a chance, but will have to run a much smarter campaign than Luther Strange’s.


How Doug Jones Might Upset Roy Moore in Alabama

After watching Judge Roy Moore dispatch GOP Senator Luther Strange in a Republican special election runoff, I took a long look at New York at the possibility of Democrat Doug Jones pulling off a general election upset. \

The bad news — and it’s really bad — for Democratic Senate nominee Doug Jones heading toward a December 12 special general election is that no one from his party has won a statewide election since 2008. And that was just the chairmanship of the Public Service Commission. The good news is that the one time it nearly happened since then (in 2012) the Republican candidate was Roy Moore.

That’s right: the Ten Commandments Judge, who had been stripped of the state’s Chief Justice’s gavel in 2003 for defying a federal court order to remove a giant monument to the Ten Commandments from his courtroom, and then lost two GOP gubernatorial primaries, made it back to the Chief Justice position five years ago by a narrow four-point margin over Democratic circuit court judge Bob Vance. As has generally been the case throughout Moore’s career, he was heavily outspent (better than six to one), but like the rest of the GOP ticket, won anyway.

Moore subsequently got into another fight with the federal judicial system, this time over compliance with the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision establishing a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. While he technically still holds his judicial office, in September 2016 he was suspended from the exercise of its powers until his term ends early in 2019.

The question now is whether Moore — who finished first in the GOP primary and then trounced incumbent Luther Strange in a runoff — is sufficiently controversial to enable Jones to break Alabama’s recently but firmly established mold of race-based partisan voting.

As in several other Deep South states, the tipping point where Republicans began routinely winning statewide and a majority of other contests in Alabama was in 2010, when the GOP conquered both state legislative chambers and every statewide position up for election. Before then, a coalition of 90 percent of African-Americans and 30–40 percent of white voters kept Democrats competitive, and even dominant at the state legislative level. Since then the Democratic share of the white vote in Alabama has regularly fallen below 20 percent; Barack Obama got around 10 percent in 2008 and 15 percent in 2012, according to exit polls (there were no exit polls in Alabama in 2016, but Donald Trump won a higher percentage of the total vote than did John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012, and it’s unlikely that enhanced margin came from African-Americans). Doug Jones is going to have to beat that performance significantly, while pulling off the difficult task of mobilizing minority voters in what is normally a low-turnout special election where Moore’s conservative Evangelical base will definitely show up.

One might normally think Jones could batten on embittered supporters of the GOP candidate Moore just beat. But it’s unclear there is a distinctive “Luther Strange vote.” Some voters probably pulled the lever for the incumbent because he was an incumbent, and others because the president and vice-president, along with the senior senator from Alabama (Richard Shelby), endorsed him. Moore is already getting solid GOP support, particularly from the White House.

There are, however, certainly Alabama Republicans who either don’t agree with Roy Moore’s theocratic views, and/or who fear he will damage the state’s image (and its attractiveness to transplants and investors) with the kind of extremist antics he’s performed so often in the past — but this time on the higher-profile platform of the U.S. Senate. Alabama, after all, is still sensitive to the hilarity surrounding their former governor (dubbed the Luv Guv) Robert Bentley, who was forced to resign after a lurid sex-and-corruption scandal. For reasons of his own, Luther Strange did not talk about Moore’s extremism during the primary and runoff (he tried, somewhat hilariously, to attack Moore as a “liberal” and a career politician). Doug Jones can and will, perhaps with quiet encouragement from the Alabama business community and other “respectable” opinion-leaders.

It is clear from the get-go that Jones understands Moore’s main vulnerability: In his initial statement on the general election, variations on the word “embarrassment” are used often:

“After years of embarrassing headlines about top public officials in this state, this race is about the people of Alabama and about choosing a candidate with character and integrity they can be proud of. I will never embarrass the people of Alabama.”

Jones’s own profile as the prosecutor of the 1963 Birmingham Church bombers certainly comports with what Alabamians would prefer to think about themselves. Beyond that, there are some things about the prospect of Roy Moore serving in the Senate that haven’t really been explored adequately. Is he going to ask his enemy Mitch McConnell for Jeff Sessions’s old seat on the Judiciary Committee? How appropriate would it be for a senator who has twice defied federal court orders to vote on confirmation of federal judges? And to what extent can a man who quite literally believes God Almighty is directing his career be expected to behave himself in Washington for the sake of his state’s reputation?

National Democrats have some decisions to make about Alabama. Putting a third GOP-held Senate seat into play (right now only Arizona and Nevada are deemed competitive) could convert 2018 from a purely defensive struggle for Senate Democrats into a drive — a long shot, but hardly impossible given the near-certainty of a midterm trend against the party controlling the White House — for actual control. Moore’s career-long aversion to fundraising could provide a real opening. But anything heavy-handed could help Judge Roy play the martyr and stimulate Alabama’s ideological and partisan juices in an unfortunate way for Doug Jones. The Democrat has a chance, but will have to run a much smarter campaign than Luther Strange’s.


September 24: Trump Goes To Alabama To Acknowledge Luther Strange’s Worship

I watched all 85 minutes of Donald Trump’s speech in Huntsville, Alabama on Friday night, and after a brief period of recovery, I offered these thoughts for New York:

[A]s at all the Trump campaign events before and after his election, a recording of the Rolling Stones’ song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was played. Listening to the familiar tune, it occurred to me that Luther Strange didn’t get what he wanted from Trump’s visit, but he may have gotten what he needed — a last-minute boost from the pol Alabama Republicans adore.

Had the Strange campaign been scripting it all, they could have probably done without Trump’s suggestions that their candidate was on the road to sure defeat until the president’s endorsement, or his confession that intervening in this race represented a big political risk, or his pledge to campaign for opponent Roy Moore if he won. I’m sure they cringed when Trump explained how he came up with the nickname “Big Luther” (he had it long before Trump knew who he was) and also when he asserted that Alabama’s new senator has barely met the Senate Majority Leader (who has arranged for virtually all of Luther’s campaign financing). And Team Strange would have probably preferred a few more references to Strange’s accomplishments beyond the abject sycophancy to the president that Trump mentioned again and again, and that the candidate has been displaying to an embarrassing degree on the campaign trail.

But Trump’s speech, even though it spiraled farther and farther away from any coherent message during the course of 85 minutes, did return regularly to the subject at hand. And if Mitch McConnell’s super-pac wants footage for some last-minute ads showing Trump thumping the tubs for Big Luther or standing with him in his MAGA hat, there’s plenty of material at hand.

Perhaps some people beyond Alabama tuned into the speech to see if the president would visibly freak out over today’s developments in the Senate, where John McCain announced his opposition to the Graham-Cassidy legislation that Trump and other Republicans were pushing as a last-gasp effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. Trump did mention it several times, at first mildly, as though it was a minor setback, but eventually he was bellowing at the GOP (not McCain or anyone else specifically) for once again breaking its promise to repeal Obamacare. Perhaps the oddest moment was when Trump suggested that it’s no time to stop the Obamacare repeal effort when Republicans are so close to 50 votes. Does he not understand the September 30 deadline for qualifying the bill as a budget-reconciliation measure? Does he want to put aside his tax bill to go after health care one more time? It’s not clear, but it makes no less sense than Trump’s constantly repeated claims (and yes, he said it again tonight) that getting rid of the power of Democrats to stop bills with a filibuster would somehow get Republicans the votes of 50 of their own senators.

The longer Trump spoke, the more it became a typical Trump speech, full of rambling boasts and expressions of long-held grievances. He returned to familiar attacks on “Crooked Hillary” and extended chest-beating about the brilliance of his presidential campaign. And he veered off into a condemnation of the namby-pamby nature of contemporary pro football, and of a player whose approval ratings in Alabama are surely worse than Hillary Clinton’s — Colin Kaepernick, whom he called a “son of a bitch” he wished NFL owners would “get off the field.”

If you listened to his speech carefully, it became obvious that Trump’s biggest anxiety about Luther Strange is that a loss by his candidate would be blamed on himself and tarnish his own luster. In this, as in so many respects, Luther Strange can hardly complain about becoming an afterthought in his own campaign. When your campaign message is one of slavish devotion to a narcissist, which aspect of you do you expect the narcissist to praise?

Some Alabama Republicans — the ones most likely to turn out in a special runoff election — are such intense culture warriors that nothing short of the grim theocrat Roy Moore will do as a Senate nominee. But your run-of-the-mill reactionaries will be fine with Luther Strange, and Trump’s appearance (along with a quick swing by Mike Pence the day before Tuesday’s balloting) may be just enough to get enough of them to the polls. For the rest of his career, though, Luther Strange will be reminded on many occasions exactly who saved his bacon.


Trump Goes To Alabama To Acknowledge Luther Strange’s Worship

I watched all 85 minutes of Donald Trump’s speech in Huntsville, Alabama on Friday night, and after a brief period of recovery, I offered these thoughts for New York:

[A]s at all the Trump campaign events before and after his election, a recording of the Rolling Stones’ song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was played. Listening to the familiar tune, it occurred to me that Luther Strange didn’t get what he wanted from Trump’s visit, but he may have gotten what he needed — a last-minute boost from the pol Alabama Republicans adore.

Had the Strange campaign been scripting it all, they could have probably done without Trump’s suggestions that their candidate was on the road to sure defeat until the president’s endorsement, or his confession that intervening in this race represented a big political risk, or his pledge to campaign for opponent Roy Moore if he won. I’m sure they cringed when Trump explained how he came up with the nickname “Big Luther” (he had it long before Trump knew who he was) and also when he asserted that Alabama’s new senator has barely met the Senate Majority Leader (who has arranged for virtually all of Luther’s campaign financing). And Team Strange would have probably preferred a few more references to Strange’s accomplishments beyond the abject sycophancy to the president that Trump mentioned again and again, and that the candidate has been displaying to an embarrassing degree on the campaign trail.

But Trump’s speech, even though it spiraled farther and farther away from any coherent message during the course of 85 minutes, did return regularly to the subject at hand. And if Mitch McConnell’s super-pac wants footage for some last-minute ads showing Trump thumping the tubs for Big Luther or standing with him in his MAGA hat, there’s plenty of material at hand.

Perhaps some people beyond Alabama tuned into the speech to see if the president would visibly freak out over today’s developments in the Senate, where John McCain announced his opposition to the Graham-Cassidy legislation that Trump and other Republicans were pushing as a last-gasp effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. Trump did mention it several times, at first mildly, as though it was a minor setback, but eventually he was bellowing at the GOP (not McCain or anyone else specifically) for once again breaking its promise to repeal Obamacare. Perhaps the oddest moment was when Trump suggested that it’s no time to stop the Obamacare repeal effort when Republicans are so close to 50 votes. Does he not understand the September 30 deadline for qualifying the bill as a budget-reconciliation measure? Does he want to put aside his tax bill to go after health care one more time? It’s not clear, but it makes no less sense than Trump’s constantly repeated claims (and yes, he said it again tonight) that getting rid of the power of Democrats to stop bills with a filibuster would somehow get Republicans the votes of 50 of their own senators.

The longer Trump spoke, the more it became a typical Trump speech, full of rambling boasts and expressions of long-held grievances. He returned to familiar attacks on “Crooked Hillary” and extended chest-beating about the brilliance of his presidential campaign. And he veered off into a condemnation of the namby-pamby nature of contemporary pro football, and of a player whose approval ratings in Alabama are surely worse than Hillary Clinton’s — Colin Kaepernick, whom he called a “son of a bitch” he wished NFL owners would “get off the field.”

If you listened to his speech carefully, it became obvious that Trump’s biggest anxiety about Luther Strange is that a loss by his candidate would be blamed on himself and tarnish his own luster. In this, as in so many respects, Luther Strange can hardly complain about becoming an afterthought in his own campaign. When your campaign message is one of slavish devotion to a narcissist, which aspect of you do you expect the narcissist to praise?

Some Alabama Republicans — the ones most likely to turn out in a special runoff election — are such intense culture warriors that nothing short of the grim theocrat Roy Moore will do as a Senate nominee. But your run-of-the-mill reactionaries will be fine with Luther Strange, and Trump’s appearance (along with a quick swing by Mike Pence the day before Tuesday’s balloting) may be just enough to get enough of them to the polls. For the rest of his career, though, Luther Strange will be reminded on many occasions exactly who saved his bacon.