US midterm elections tend to have rules. The first, and most important rule, is that the president’s party always, always, loses seats. Tuesday’s special Senate election in Alabama wasn’t quite a midterm, but it was an hors d'oeuvre for the main event next November. The surprising thing however, was that that first rule rang true in Alabama: the heart of Dixie, a state that Trump won last November by 28 points, and hasn’t elected a Democrat to state-wide office in a quarter of a century.
Doug Jones’s stunning upset over Roy Moore, a 1.5% margin of victory meaning he effectively swung the state by 30 points from last November, not only seems to have proven that allegations of sexual harassment can swing elections as well as fell the titans on the big and small screens, but also appears to have breathed new life into a party shuffling slowly toward its demise.
Alabama, and the rest of the American South, has been a no-go area for Democrats almost since Richard Nixon’s ‘Southern Strategy’ of the late 1960s. And the result of racial Congressional gerrymandering in the 1990s means the party now survives in a few predominantly African-American areas, while being virtually extinct everywhere else.
But the malaise goes further, nationally, after the embarrassment of last November, where was the new great white (or otherwise) hope coming from? Democrat House Leader Nancy Pelosi clings on at the age of 77, and both the party’s front runners for the Presidency in 2016 were in their 70s too. The bench is almost bare after years of down-ballot state and local election thumping’s at the hand of the Republican party.
And yet, after Tuesday, there is a spark. Alabama is not a blueprint the Democrats will be able to replicate nationwide in 2018; Roy Moore’s candidacy was unorthodox at best, and the map they face is a tough one, certainly in comparison to the last election cycle. 25 of the 34 Senate seats up for election in 2018 are being defended by the Democrats, and 10 of those are in states Trump carried in 2016. By contrast, only one seat, that of Senator Dean Heller in Nevada, is in a state won by Hillary Clinton last year.
Nevertheless, the Democratic Party did just win a Senatorial election in Alabama, a state carried by Donald Trump by 28 points, where his approval rating is 48% - 12 points higher than his approval rating nationally. And after Alabama, plus big wins in Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races, the momentum is with the Democrats.
Real Clear Politics’ most recent ‘Generic Ballot’ poll has a generic Democrat beating a generic Republican by 11 points next November. It might seem counter-intuitive, but a loss last November might have been the best thing to happen to the Democrats’ national political hopes. If the usual midterm rules applied, then next year’s map would have been a disaster for President Clinton two years into her first term. Instead the tables have turned and, if the Democrats won every House seat as red as Alabama, they’d win 160 next year.
That of course is not going to happen. But, to quote 538’s election guru Nate Silver: 'To win the House next year, they need 25 seats, not 160. And they need two Senate seats – not eight – to win that chamber.'
2017 has been a bounce back year of sorts for the Democratic Party after the disaster of 2016. But while Virginia and New Jersey were states carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016, Doug Jones’s win in Alabama on Tuesday is the latest, and greatest, shot in the arm for what appeared to be a dying party, and the momentum going into the midterms next year is well and truly with them.