After a thorough and stunning set of victories in Tuesday night’s elections, some Democratic officials are pushing the party to take a far more aggressive approach to the next marquee race: the special election for a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama.
The party’s prospects have always seemed remote in that election. Though Democrat Doug Jones is going up against twice-disgraced former State Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, few considered a deep southern state ripe for a Democratic upset.
But wins in the Virginia governor’s race, alongside the flipping of over a dozen Virginia state House of Delegates seats and with victories in other local races throughout the country, has added a healthy dose of optimism to Democrats’ collective outlook.
“This is a winnable seat and we are insane not to pursue it maximally,” former DNC Chair Howard Dean said in an interview. “I know Alabama is a conservative state. But they are Americans and they can’t possibly think what Trump is doing is okay. Jones is a homeboy. He has distinguished himself. I don’t think all Alabamians are racists. That’s a northern canard. They will stand for decency if they have a chance and this is a decent candidate we have versus a really awful one that they have.”
Dean’s bullishness on Alabama spotlights a dilemma—a welcomed one, perhaps—that currently confronts the Democratic Party: With the apparent opportunity to compete in places it normally couldn’t, officials must now figure out how best to deploy their finite resources, staff and attention.
Jones’ race is likely to be the last high-profile one of 2017, but not everyone is convinced he stands a chance — or that he’d benefit from his own party’s overt help.
“It is going to be won at a local level,” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told The Daily Beast just hours before the election results trickled in on Tuesday. “I have spoken to him. I think he is handling it from a good Alabama perspective and we will see what happens.”
So far, the party’s investments in the Alabama Senate race have been modest. The Democratic National Committee has put resources into the state party’s infrastructure. The party campaign committees have polled the race. And former Vice President Joe Biden made an appearance on the stump on Jones’ behalf.
In a conference call Wednesday morning, DNC Chair Tom Perez signalled strongly that not much more was likely to come, at least not immediately.
"That's an uphill battle,” he said. “He's undeniably the underdog. Underdogs can win. And I know Doug is fighting very hard."
Even though he’s running in a deeply conservative state, Jones hasn’t portrayed himself as anything but a Democrat. He’s publicly supported abortion rights, called for increasing the federal minimum wage, and backed a public option for health care coverage. His campaign has placed a heavy emphasis on “kitchen table issues” but also his bio; predominantly the role he played in prosecuting the culprits in the Birmingham church bombing that killed four girls in 1963.
Privately, operatives in the state say polling has the race anywhere between a four to seven percentage point advantage for Moore—a good lead but hardly insurmountable.
“I didn’t wake up today and think Doug Jones has a better chance. I always thought he had a good chance,” said Kevin Akins, a Montgomery-based pollster for Anzalone Liszt Grove Research. “Tuesday's results is a validator for a lot of us based here who have followed Roy Moore’s career for a long time who have said that if there is a good Democrat running against him it will be a close race.”
But Alabama isn’t Virginia. Governor-elect Ralph Northam’s victory in the latter was propelled, in large part, by a wave of college-educated suburban white voters—are there are many more of those in the D.C. suburbs than on the outskirts of Birmingham. Northam also benefited from having a huge number of local Democrats run for delegate spots—a down-ballot bolstering that Jones won’t enjoy.
Operatives familiar with the race say that the grassroots enthusiasm that propelled those Democratic House of Delegate candidates to victory in Virginia on Tuesday night could still be there for Jones, even if the candidates themselves are not. That’s especially true given that some Alabamans haven’t had a viable statewide Democratic candidate to vote for in years.
“What we’re seeing across the country is a real surge in grassroots energy and enthusiasm and that can put tough deep red districts and states like Alabama in play in a way they never have been before,” Neil Sroka, communications director for Democracy for America told The Daily Beast. The group, initially formed by Howard Dean, endorsed Jones at the start of the general election and has been fundraising on his behalf. “It’s been quite a long time since a lot of Alabamans have seen a truly competitive senate race. That’s the real lift and one of the things that we hope to work on with Jones’ team.”
A Democratic aide involved in Senate races, who requested to speak on background, also said that Moore’s controversial past—he was removed twice from his seat on the bench for disobeying court orders—makes for an opening for Jones. It hasn’t hurt matters that Jones has been running bio ads on TV with little to no pushback from his Republican counterparts. Those ads “have been up for about four weeks at this point basically in an uncontested paid media environment,” the aide said.
Still, national Democrats appear content to keep a distance for now. Party leaders say they expect more money to ultimately be sent to the Alabama state party. There may be additional fundraiser appeals for Jones as well. But no major surrogates are expected to swing through the state before the vote on December 12. And there is little expectation that the party will even emphasize the race as a priority, lest they raise expectations or encourage Republicans to respond in kind.
“I really think the important thing for the national party would be to provide resources but not to come in that way,” said state Senator Hank Sanders. “I really think it has to be run at the state race and local race. National figures coming in aren’t grassroot.”