Okay, it’s now time for Republicans to hit the panic button. Democrat Doug Jones won a US Senate seat in Alabama last night. Alabama! I didn’t really think it was possible, but it happened. It was the best election night for Democrats since Barack Obama won in 2008 and it sets the stage for a wave of enormous proportions next November.
Sure, Roy Moore was a uniquely flawed candidate and Republicans willing to stay home, write-in a candidate or even vote for Doug Jones made a big difference. Still, Jones enjoyed a 31% swing in vote share over Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. In special elections this year, Democrats have improved their performance by an average of 16%. If that enthusiasm gap holds going into 2018, Republicans will have a difficult time holding either the House or the Senate.
African-American voters, in particular, are engaged. Barack Obama’s candidacy inspired black voters to get more heavily involved in the political process and they’re clearly not going away. While African-American turnout in NC was down slightly in 2016 over 2012, it was far above where it was in the years preceding 2008. And turnout among African-American women (72%) was above the overall turnout (69%). In a low-turnout election like 2018, they’ll play a big role in determining the outcome.
The big losers last night, besides Roy Moore, were Donald Trump and Steve Bannon. Trump went all in for Moore in the final days of the election even as other Republicans were keeping a respectable distance. Bannon, for his part, supposedly assured Trump that Moore would win and counted on the victory to energize his war on the GOP establishment. Instead, he damaged his reputation and widened the split within the Republican Party.
The election should also dispel any GOP thoughts that their tax bill would give them credibility. They were elated after the House and Senate versions passed and leaders like Mitch McConnell backed off their criticisms of Roy Moore. While the bill might excite lobbyists and Republican Members of Congress, it’s not doing much for the GOP rank-and-file.
Finally, the election indicates that the populist movement driving the GOP today is probably the last gasp of advocates for the white power structure that’s dominated the country since its beginning. Voters under 45 went for Jones by 22 points. That’s consistent with numbers we’ve seen in other elections where millennials favor Democrats by more than 20 points. To survive as a major party, the GOP must become more inclusive and moderate. Democrats, for their part, should find room for disaffected conservatives, particularly in suburban districts where their support could give Democrats majorities in Congress and legislative chambers.