With Doug Jones’ upset victory in last week’s Alabama US Senate race, Democrats are solidifying a new model for rebuilding their tattered competitiveness in the South.
Jones benefited from the unique vulnerabilities of his opponent, Republican Roy Moore, who was a deeply polarizing figure even before he was besieged by allegations that he had pursued relationships with teenage girls, some of them underage, while in his 30s.
But the coalition that Jones mobilized closely resembled the voter alignments that have powered other recent Democratic victories in governors’ races in Virginia, North Carolina and Louisiana. Above all, Jones demonstrated that Democrats could simultaneously inspire passionate turnout from their base supporters, led by African-Americans, and make inroads with centrist white-collar white voters — each of which, for different reasons, is recoiling from Donald Trump’s tumultuous presidency. That combination allowed Jones to overcome Moore’s lopsided margins among blue-collar, evangelical, older and rural whites — the four building blocks of the Trump coalition.
Keeping momentum and agreement among those groups won’t be easy, but Democrats see it as a possible pathway to majorities in the 2018 midterm elections.
“It was definitely the most complicated, toughest thing I’ve ever been through, on the edge of your seat,” said Joe Trippi, a longtime Democratic strategist who directed Jones’ campaign. “[But] Trump has created this middle ground where enough moderate and conservative Republicans and Democrats really want leadership about coming together and getting something done. … I think that is the winning message of 2018.”
Jones’ victory was centered on minorities, millennial voters and college-educated suburban whites, especially women. That’s exactly the formula Democrats now depend on in most states. But even with strong African-American support, Southern Democrats until recently come up short, largely because they haven’t attracted nearly as many college-educated whites as their party does elsewhere.
Now, with Democratic constituencies energized and suburban swing voters uneasy about Trump, Southern Democrats are suddenly finding it more possible to assemble the coalition that the party relies on in other regions. And that could create new opportunities for Democrats across the South, most immediately in suburban House districts in 2018, but potentially also in statewide contests such as the 2018 governor’s race in Georgia and Senate battle in Tennessee.
“I am not going to say that any place is going to be noncompetitive next year,” says Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who has long specialized in Southern races. “It all depends on the environment and how it shifts over the course of the next year, but it’s hard to see it getting a whole lot more favorable for Republicans with Donald Trump as the face of the party.”
Democrats still face a long road to re-establishing competitiveness across the South. In 2016, Trump beat Hillary Clinton in all 11 states of the old Confederacy except for Virginia, typically by enormous margins. (Only a year before Jones’ win, Trump carried Alabama by nearly 28 percentage points and 590,000 votes.) Even after Jones’ win, Democrats still hold just four of the region’s 22 Senate seats (including Mark Warner and Tim Kaine in Virginia and Bill Nelson in Florida). And Democrats control just three of the 11 Southern governor’s mansions.
Yet Jones’ victory continued a modest Southern Democratic revival that includes those three governor wins: one in 2017 (Ralph Northam in Virginia), one in 2016 (Roy Cooper in North Carolina) and the last in 2015 (John Bel Edwards in Louisiana.)
Even as they embraced most traditional Democratic priorities — such as expanding access to Medicaid, defending the Affordable Care Act and ensuring equal treatment for gays — each of those four candidates ran primarily as a consensus-builder in an increasingly polarized age.
While defending the ACA, opposing the GOP tax plan and affirming his support for legal abortion, Jones promised to seek common ground where possible with Trump and Republicans — a message he repeated on CNN’s “State of the Union” this Sunday. The most memorable television ad of Jones’ campaign was a spot called “Honor” in which, speaking directly to the camera, he praised “two brave men” who fought on the Confederate and Union sides at Gettysburg during the Civil War and declared, “There is honor in compromise and civility.”
Trippi said Jones faced criticism from some Democratic activists who wanted a more pugnacious approach to Trump. But, he added, there was no evidence that Jones’ call for common ground depressed turnout among the core Democratic groups. “That message didn’t keep the lid on our own energy and excitement,” Trippi said. “You get more angst from activist leaders than you do [from] voters. You gain far more than [you lose from] the few loud voices that don’t like working with the other side.”
Indeed, Jones achieved two broad campaign goals that some on the left have viewed as incompatible.
On the one hand, he was buoyed by big turnouts and huge margins among core Democratic constituencies. That was especially true among African-Americans, who made up slightly more of the vote, and voted slightly more heavily Democratic, last week than they did when President Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012, according to exit polls. But Jones also benefited from respectable turnout and a commanding margin among young voters, who gave him fully three-fifths of their votes. (He received a thumb on the scale, too, from the 5 percent of voters who were neither white nor black, a reflection of the increasing Hispanic, Asian and mixed race presence throughout the Southeast.)
John Anzalone, an Alabama-based Democratic pollster who worked on an independent expenditure effort supporting Jones, says that while Moore won very high percentages in his rural strongholds, they could not match the enhanced turnout in more urbanized Democratic-leaning areas. “We turned out where we had to turn out our voters, and even though he did really well in his strongholds the turnout wasn’t big enough,” Anzalone said. “We are getting people who have never come out in a midterm or special election, and they are disproportionately our people.”
Jones also made deeper inroads among white-collar white voters, such as those in suburbs around Huntsville and Birmingham, than Southern Democrats have usually achieved. In 2016, for instance, exit polls showed that Clinton carried 45% of college-educated whites nationally but only about one-third or less in Florida, Texas and Georgia. In 2014, Democratic Senate candidates didn’t win more than one-third of college-educated whites in any Southern state with an exit poll except North Carolina and Virginia. In 2012, the last time an exit poll was conducted in Alabama, Obama won only one-fifth of college-educated whites there.
Last week, though, the exit poll found that Jones won 40 percent of college-educated whites in Alabama, double Obama’s share. That reaffirmed the movement evident in the Virginia race, where Northam reached 51 percent among college-educated whites, considerably more than Democrats had garnered in any recent statewide race there. Although exit polls weren’t available in the June special election for a suburban House seat outside of Atlanta, Democrat Jon Ossoff could not have finished so close to Republican Karen Handel, the narrow winner, without significant gains among those voters too.
The movement toward Southern Democrats this year has been greatest among college-educated white women in both Virginia (where Northam carried 58 percent of them) and Alabama (where Jones took 45 percent). But each gained substantially among well-educated men too.
Ayres says the intense distaste for Trump among college-educated white women represents a clear and present danger for any Republican who must court a heavily suburban constituency, even in the South. “If you put Alabama together with Virginia, it’s very clear that college-educated suburban women are rejecting Trump and his style and what he has brought to the country,” Ayres said. “[This] is a logical extension of the patterns we saw in the presidential election in 2016. Republicans traded fast growing, large, better-educated counties for slow growing, smaller less well-educated counties. And it was a trade that worked well for Trump, barely, in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, but it’s hardly a formula for long-term success.”
Even amid these gains, the big blinking yellow light for Democrats is the continuing Republican hold on the blue-collar, evangelical and rural voters who play such a large role in many Southern states. Trippi said that while Trump’s combative persona helped mobilize African-Americans and young people, and enlarged the opening for Jones with white-collar whites, the President showed a potent capacity to tug his coalition back toward Moore whenever it appeared to waver. “He has this weird thing where he would help fuel our positive message [on working together] and then he would roll in and create the tribalism that would help them all move back to Moore,” Trippi said.
Still, Jones — like Ralph Northam and Roy Cooper before him — wasn’t annihilated among working-class white voters by quite as large a margin as Clinton or Obama or most Southern Democratic Senate candidates in 2014. Trippi said the campaign’s research found that Trump’s “divisive negative style … was starting to wear even on” those voters, who have been Trump’s most loyal.
Democrats still face many obstacles in the South. But Trump’s turbulent presidency may be creating more opportunity than almost anyone anticipated for the party to begin overcoming them.