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Thoughts on Alabama

Remember the “Blue Wall?” If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it referred to the set of northeastern and midwestern states, spanning Maine to Minnesota, that had predominantly favored Democrats in presidential elections between 1988-2012. These states, representing traditional blue domains such as New York as well as pivotal swing territory such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, were thought to protect any Democratic candidate from losing the popular vote by providing a substantial Electoral College cushion. Here’s a look at the Blue Wall:

Screen Shot 2017-12-16 at 10.57.30 AM

A few caveats:

  • Ohio has voted with the winner of every presidential election after 1960 and is sometimes not included in the Blue Wall, but I’m including it since Democrats have not proven they can win presidential elections without it yet.
  • Minnesota hasn’t voted for a Republican for President since 1972, the longest such streak for any blue state.
  • Iowa and New Hampshire were both won once by George W. Bush.

The 2016 election shattered the Blue Wall, with Donald Trump becoming the first GOP candidate since the 1980s to carry Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. He also decisively won both Iowa and Ohio, peeled off one of Maine’s electoral votes, and came very close to taking New Hampshire and Minnesota.

Oddly, I thought of the Blue Wall this week when Doug Jones defeated Roy Moore in the Alabama special election for the remainder of the term originally won by Jeff Sessions in 2014.  Alabama is the quintessential piece of the new Solid South, meaning it is as reliably red as any state on the map.

The old Solid South was a bastion of Democratic support, voting reliably for the slew of failed Democratic presidential candidates from the 1870s to the 1930s. Back then, the Democratic party was still attached to its segregationist roots. While this southern bloc stuck with FDR, it began to fragment in 1948 by giving its votes to Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrat ticket. It then backed the unpledged elector slate in 1960, Barry Goldwater in 1964, and George Wallace in 1968. Richard Nixon’s 1972 landslide cemented the Solid South as the foundation of national GOP success.

Jones put a significant dent in this Red Wall, running from Texas to West Virginia, by defeating Moore. Among the former Confederate states, there were currently only 3 Democratic U.S. Senators prior to Jones’ victory, and 2 of them are from Virginia (Tim Kaine and Mark Warner); the other is Florida’s septuagenarian ex-astronaut Bill Nelson. Moreover, among the ex-Confederacy, every state except Virginia and Louisiana had a GOP trifecta at the end of 2017, meaning one-party control of its governorship, state senate, and state house.

With all of this context, I feel like the Jones upset is even more significant than Scott Brown’s special election victory over Martha Coakley in Massachusetts in 2010. Brown became the first GOP U.S. Senator from Massachusetts since the 1970s upon his seating. However, Republicans have sustained statewide success in the Bay State in recent years. Mitt Romney served as its governor from 2003-2007 and its current governor, Charlie Baker, is also GOP. Meanwhile, until Jones, Alabama hadn’t:

  • Elected a Democrat to any statewide office since 2008, when an ex-lieutenant governor was elected public service commissioner.
  • Elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1992, when current senior Senator Richard Shelby was reelected, only to switch over to the GOP in 1994
  • Elected any non-switcher Democrat to that body since 1990, when Howell Heflin – who relished Confederated “heritage” and was one of only two D votes against the Family and Medical Leave Act – won a third term.

In other words, Alabama had basically never elected a Democrat who fit the party’s modern mold as a progressive institution detached from its southern roots. Moreover, Alabama has been dominated by forces of reaction for centuries, having been central to the founding of the Confederacy (the first CSA capital was Montgomery, where the founding congress met), Jim Crow laws, the Thurmond campaign, the Wallace campaign, the anti-civil rights terrorism of the mid-20th century (Bull Connor et al.), the rollback of the Voting Right Acts (via Shelby v. Holder, a Supreme Court case that began in the Birmingham suburbs), and the election of Trump (his first big rally in 2015 was in Mobile).

The symbolism of Jone’s victory is also remarkable. A year ago, his seat was held by Sessions, a hardliner who was once denied a judgeship by Ronald Reagan for being too racist, who was lambasted by Coretta Scott King herself in a letter to the Senate, and who was the first sitting U.S. Senator to endorse Trump. Sessions ran unopposed in 2014, garnering 97% of the vote, and now he’s U.S. Attorney General; his seat will be occupied by a pro-choice, pro-Social Security, pro-net neutrality Democrat from 2018 onward. By winning, Jones also crushed the mythology around the political acumen of Steve Bannon (who vigourously supported Moore) and laid waste to the notion of Alabama as a place where Trump was unusualy popular and influential (he somehow endorsed the losing candidate twice in this race, first in the GOP runoff, then in the general election).

Practically speaking, Jones’ win also flips the idea that the 2018 U.S. Senate map is particularly daunting for Democrats. They now only have to gain 2+ seats and protect all or most of their own to take the chamber. This is easier than it sounds. The following GOP seats are in big trouble:

  • Arizona: the retiring Jeff Flake could easily allow the radical Kelli Ward to capture the GOP nomination against House Democrat Krysten Sinema, in state Trump carried by a slim 47-44 margin last year.
  • Nevada: Dean Heller has pissed off everyone by first opposing and then supporting Obamacare repeal, plus his state was carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016.
  • Tennessee: an open seat, this race could pit popular ex-governor Phil Bredesen (D) against House GOPer Marsha Blackburn.
  • Texas: somehow, Ted Cruz is even less popular in Texas than Moore was in Alabama, and he already has a credible and well-funded opponent in U.S. Rep Beto O’Rourke.

Meanwhile, yes, Democrats are defending numerous seats, including 10 in states Trump carried. But that’s not as bad it seems. Even these red state Dems are quite popular and lack top-tier opposition in many of these races. For example, Sherrod Brown (Ohio) will likely get a rematch against Josh Mandel, whom he comfortably defeated last time; Nelson (Florida) might not even have to face current Republican governor Rick Scott, who has hesitated about entering; and Joe Manchin (West Virginia) has held statewide office for more than a decade and never been in a close contest.

There’s also possible trouble ahead in both Arizona and Mississippi, both of which have octagenarian senators (John McCain and Thad Cochran, respectivley) who could resign or, given their well-documented health issues, die at any moment. We already discussed the issues for Republicans in the increasingly swing-y Arizona, but it’s worth mentioning that Mississippi has the largest percentage of African-Americans of any state (37%); for comparison, Alabama has 25%. Democrats routinely get 40-45% in statewide elections in the Magnolia State and could likely compete with a major turnout campaign and a poor GOP candidate, such as perennial contender and neoconfederate Repubclian state senator Chris McDaniel.

2017 has been a horrible year in many respects. The Alabama results provide some hope for a more sane government in the years ahead.

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