In roughly 20 days, Doug Jones will be sworn in as a United States Senator from the state of Alabama. Jones, a Democrat, will replace Republican Luther Strange and narrow the GOP’s already-slim majority from 52 seats to 51. The official election results have not yet been certified, but it appears that Jones has beaten his opponent, Roy Moore, by 1.5 percentage points or just shy of 21,000 votes. This is the first time any Democrat has won a major statewide office in 25 years (and the Democrat who won 25 years ago, Richard Shelby, ended up switching to the Republican Party two years later).
I didn’t think Jones could win until last month’s revelations that Judge Roy Moore attempted to date, harass, and assault underage girls in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and even then I thought this race was a dead heat. Until then, I had expected that Alabama would disappoint the nation by electing Roy Moore in spite of (or because of) his racist, Islamophobic, homophobic, and fashion-phobic tendencies. My hope was that Doug Jones would prove the Democratic Party’s viability by losing to Moore by 4 or 5 points instead of Alabama’s usual 28 points. After the revelations came out, I gave Jones a 49.9% chance of winning, but still expected him to lose by a point or two.
And then Jones won. Not by a handful of votes, not by a tiny fraction of a percentage point, but by nearly 21,000 votes and over 1.5 percent of the vote. His unexpected triumph is undoubtedly the greatest in the storied 2017 election cycle (which I covered earlier this year here and here), because it gives the Democrats a much better chance of winning back the majority in the 2018 Senate elections, and was the party’s only major victory in a deep red state. Those of you who had a pulse for the past month likely know that the biggest factor in this election was Roy Moore’s horrid behavior, so I won’t harp on that too much. The basic summary is that Roy Moore is a terrible person, Trump isn’t too popular in Alabama, principled conservatives didn’t care for Moore, and Doug Jones got huge turnout among Democrats, especially women and black voters. With that out of the way, let’s focus on the big picture stuff.
The 2017 Election Results:
- U.S. House of Representatives: +0 Seats (6 elections, all won by co-partisans of the exiting incumbents)
- U.S. Senate: +1 Seat (1 election, won by Doug Jones (D-AL))
- Governorships: +1 Seat (2 elections, won by Ralph Northam (D-VA) and Phil Murphy (D-NJ), the latter being a Democratic gain)
- States Controlled: +2 States (3 elections, won in Washington and New Jersey with Dem. gains in Virginia)
Okay, I admit that looked a lot more impressive in my head.
What Those Results Mean:
That U.S. Senate pickup is incredibly important, and it’s definitely worth focusing on. Until January 3, 2018, the Republican Party will hold 52 out of 100 Senate seats, enough to confirm all but the most controversial cabinet and judicial appointees. Bills proposed via budget reconciliation (a parliamentary trick used to avoid the filibuster) like the failed health care bill and pending tax bill could pass on party-line votes with a tiny bit of wiggle room. Until Jones takes office, a bill can pass the Senate with only 50 Republican Senators (+ the Vice President) supporting it, meaning that up to two Republican Senators can defect from the party line and vote against a bill before it fails. You may remember the attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare back in July, which only failed because three Senators (McCain, Murkowski, and Collins) voted against it.
Once Jones takes office, that margin will shrink to just one allowed defection. If two Republican Senators oppose a GOP bill, they can sink it. That means moderate Senators like Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) will have a hell of a lot more power next year; each Senator has occasionally defected from the party line on key votes, and now Majority Leader McConnell can no longer afford to propose any bill that goes against both their interests.
Throw in other possible defectors like conservative Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Bob Corker (R-TN), and libertarian/conservative Rand Paul (R-KY) and the plot gets that much thicker. Now McConnell must get the votes of one or both of the above moderate Senators and get votes from conservatives McCain, Flake, and Paul. This need to appeal to the hard right and moderate-ish wings of his party with an incredibly tiny margin of error means that Mitch McConnell has a very slim chance of being able to pass any meaningful legislation at all, barring any sudden outbreaks of bipartisanship. If the Republicans want to pass major legislation on a party-line vote, they have until the end of this year to do it.
Earlier in this post, I brought up the 2018 elections, and how the Democratic Party now has a very real chance of retaking the U.S. Senate in the midterms. If the Democratic Party gains just one more seat, the Senate (as well as all the Senate committees) will be split 50-50, though Vice President Pence will have the ability to break ties in favor of the 50 Republican Senators. That means McConnell will remain Majority Leader, though his ability to pass partisan bills will have absolutely zero room for defections. Frankly, that’s not good enough for the Democrats.
The real prize for Democrats is having 51+ Senate seats, a feat that requires picking up two Senate seats. This is fairly doable, because the Democrats have solid chances to pick up the Senate seats in Nevada and Arizona. However, the Democrats also have to hold on to existing seats in Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Wisconsin – states that all voted for Donald Trump in 2016. I fully expect that 2018 will be a wave year with record Democratic turnout and depressed Republican turnout, but even that might not be enough to guarantee a Senate takeover. I could easily imagine a case where Democrats pick up Arizona and Nevada, but lose North Dakota or Montana, leaving the party one seat short of a majority.
The good news is that the Democrats don’t reaaaallllly need to retake the Senate in order to put a stop to the Republican Party’s wish to blow up the deficit and blow up Obamacare, because the Democrats are on track to retake the House of Representatives next year, and with a comfortable margin. Don’t get me wrong, the Senate is incredibly important because of its role in confirming Cabinet and judicial nominees, and it’ll be an incredible boon if the Democrats manage to take the Senate and the House, because such a legislative majority would give the Democrats the power to pass opposition legislation and demand moderate judicial nominees from the Trump administration.
However, if the Democrats only retake the House, that stops the Republican Party from trying to pass party-line policies like a repeal of Obamacare or massive cuts in corporate and personal tax rates. In fact, by retaking the House, the Democrats would be in a strong negotiating position to demand bipartisan action on issues like infrastructure reform, immigration reform, and the budget. Hell, the Democrats would be in a position to impeach the President or members of his administration if the Mueller investigation reveals sufficient wrongdoing (though I must say that any attempts to impeach the President before the investigation is complete will only weaken any legitimate attempts at impeachment). For Democrats, just being able to stop the Republicans from passing partisan legislation is enough of a win. Taking back control of the Senate would just be icing on the cake.
I don’t want anyone to walk away from this post thinking that Doug Jones’s victory in Alabama means that Washington is going to enter a complete state of gridlock. Doug Jones is a liberal Democrat, but he’s fairly moderate on a couple of key issues, saying that he’s open to cutting corporate tax rates and boosting military spending (for readers who know me personally, it may be helpful to note that Doug Jones and I have practically identical political positions). Senate Republicans have spent the last year trying to rally their members around party line votes, but it’s not really necessary for every single issue. The Democratic Party has moderate Senators like Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO), and there may be common ground between the Republicans and “regular” liberal Senators like Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) who have some moderate ideas inside their otherwise liberal platform. This means Republicans can get crucial Democratic votes on things like infrastructure reform, drug pricing, and defense spending, all in order to keep the government functioning and make the nation a better place.
Anyways, I guess the big take-away here is that Doug Jones has won a U.S. Senate seat in a deep red state, which means that the Democrats are gonna have an easier time picking up the Senate (or bringing the Senate to a tie) in 2018. It also means that the Republicans are about to have a much more limited ability to pass legislation with only Republican votes, meaning Majority Leader McConnell may need to reach across the aisle to get stuff done.
I would caution fellow readers from reading into this election too much, though, because while it’s impressive that a pro-choice Democrat eked out a win in one of the reddest states in the nation, his opponent was an alleged child molester who believed God allowed 9/11 to happen because the country was getting too gay/atheist, thinks that the 13th Amendment should be abolished, and that homosexuality should be illegal. It’s certainly good news for senatorial candidates running for 2018, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that Democrats are going to have 30-point swings in every single Senate election. Still, good news all around.
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