Lessons in Winning from Alabama

It is easy to view the victory of Democratic candidate Doug Jones over Roy Moore in the ruby red state of Alabama as a one off, an event that has no national implications except to illustrate the overall weakness of the Republican brand.  After all, the Republicans fielded an extremely flawed candidate who was famous for twice getting himself kicked off of the Alabama Supreme Court and making absolutely outlandish statements long before he was accused of stalking and molesting teenage girls.   However, as a long time resident of Alabama, I can tell you that this Democratic victory constitutes a huge upset in this state, one that would have been difficult to predict three weeks ago and especially after Trump got personally got involved. Consequently, a study of how the Jones victory was executed can provide a number of lessons which can be effectively applied in the upcoming Democratic efforts in the 2018 mid-term elections.  The following is a list of the lessons which have meaning in that context:

Nominate candidates with very good reputations: Doug Jones was an exemplary candidate.  The former federal prosecutor built his reputation in Alabama by successfully bringing to justice the KKK members who killed four little girls in the bombing of the 16th Ave. Baptist Church and had escaped prosecution for decades.  Jones was also involved in prosecuting Eric Rudolph, who bombed Olympic Park in Atlanta and a Birmingham abortion clinic, and several white-collar criminals.  He is a family man with a sterling personal reputation – not a hint of scandal.

This will especially important when facing the type of Republican candidates which may emerge from the ongoing civil war within the GOP.  If the Trump/Bannon wing of the Republican party is successful in getting their candidates nominated for the 2018 elections, Democratic candidates will face opponents who are likely resemble their sponsors.  They will be candidates, who like Trump and Bannon, are bent on disrupting the Washington establishment if they get elected.  Non-conformists, immersed in tribalism, who best fit that renegade mold often do not have the best reputations.  Note that Bannon and Trump value political advantage over decency and they supported Moore even after the controversial judge was credibly accused of child molestation.  It is important that the Democratic nominees be able to present a sharp contrast with that kind of person.

Nominate candidates who are a good fit for the State or District:  A far left liberal Democrat could have never won the recent election in Alabama, even if his/her opponent was Roy Moore.  Doug Jones is a moderate Democrat.  For example, he campaigned openly as a proponent of the 2nd Amendment while opposing the repeal of Obamacare.  He is a proponent of a woman’s right’s to choose, but has opposed late term abortions.

It is absolutely essential that we Democrats avoid the internal wars that are tearing apart the Republican Party.  We cannot a have Democratic progressives and moderates at each other’s throats as we did in the last presidential nomination process and even in the following general election.  If we want to take control of both houses of Congress in 2018, we most nominate Democratic candidates in purple states whose political views are consistent with those of the majority of their future constituents. Democrats and progressives of all political persuasions must cooperate in order to win together. That may mean that we need nominate very liberal candidates in very blue states and more moderate Democrats in purple states and red states.

(Comments on the first two points):  If you are thinking right now, “Rick, that’s all well and good, but we no longer nominate party candidates in smoke filled back rooms”, you have an excellent point.  The fact that both parties now use a more democratic nomination process can throw a serious kink into the equation.  In most cases, the situation in a given state or district will take care of its self – i.e. it is unlikely for instance that Alabama Democrats would have nominated a Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren type to be their nominee.  However, I also can guarantee that the vast majority of Republican leaders in Alabama would have never chosen Roy Moore to be their candidate, even before the accusations of child molestation were leveled.

In my view, while political strategists no longer determine their party’s nominee, Democratic Party leaders, who usually know the  political landscape in a particular state or district far better than rank and file Democrats, have vested interest in influencing the selection of the party’s nominee. For instance, let’s say three candidates are running for the Democratic nomination in a Congressional district in a purple state and it is apparent to any competent observer that one of the candidates has a much better chance than the others to beat the incumbent Republican House member. It would be political malpractice for party leaders not to try to influence outcome of the nomination process.  Does that mean that it is allowable for Democratic leaders to use the party’s apparatus to try put a finger on the scale?  No, but neither should they be criticized for making their preferences well known.

However, it is ultimately up to us, the electorate in that district or state to support the Democratic candidate who has the best chance of winning the general election, even if that means not supporting a less popular candidate whose views most closely align with ours.  It’s called being pragmatic.  Would you rather support a candidate who agrees with you on all of the issues, but who will probably lose to the Republican whose views are totally the opposite of yours, or would you rather support the Democratic candidate who agrees with you on most of the issues and has the best chance of winning.  Only a fool or and a stubborn idealistic would chose the former option.  But in order to make the best choice we have to be informed.  That means being familiar with not only the stances of the Democratic candidates up for nomination, but also the political atmosphere of the state or district where the position is up for election.

A willingness on the part of candidates reduce partisanship in Washington:  Doug Jones made his willingness “to reach across the aisle and find common ground”, and his opponent’s unwillingness to do so, a centerpiece of his campaign.  Jones did this in part because it would not have gone over well in the State of Alabama if he had advertised that he intended to fight with his Republican colleagues in the Senate at every turn.  On the other hand, I am sure that he also understands that people of all political persuasions across the country are sick and tired of the constant bickering of their representatives in Congress and their resulting inability get anything done for the American people.

Doug also emphasized that there are going to be times where basic principles cannot be sacrificed and there will be a need “to agree to disagree without being disagreeable”.  I am sure he also realizes that his intention to find common ground cannot be put into to practice if the other side expects him to make all of the concessions.  However, except in the bluest of blue states, the willingness of Democratic candidates “reach across the aisle” will be an excellent selling point in the 2018 elections.

Enthusiasm translated into action is a recipe for winning:  Democrats in Alabama are highly motivated, as are Democrats throughout the nation, by the presence of the clear and present danger in Oval Office.  They are also motivated by the fact that the party that controls Congress acts in a manner contrary to the best interests of the American people.  We Democrats are very enthusiastic and, at the same time, the Republic Party in embroiled in a civil war and its base is disillusioned.  In Alabama, arguably the reddest state in the union, exit polls indicated that only 48% of the Republicans who voted in the just completed election gave Trump  positive approval ratings while 48% gave him failing marks.  The political atmosphere of this country, along with Jones’s Senate victory,  gives the Democrats a good opportunity to take control of both houses of Congress despite the odds.

However, the enthusiasm we feel and the malaise which currently engulfs Republicans base means nothing if not translated into positive action.  In the Alabama election enthusiastic Democratic activists knocked on countless doors and made well over a million and a half phone calls to get out the vote in all 67 Alabama counties. Democrats in Alabama and from all over the country contributed generously to the campaign of Doug Jones which allow him double Moore’s total contributions and air ten thousand television ads in local markets compared to just a thousand for Moore.  We need to duplicate that effort a thousand times over during the 2018 election cycle.

Understand the needs of Democratic electorate:  There is no doubt that one of the keys to Jones’s victory was the support of the black community.  Black voters in Alabama made up a larger share of the electorate in this victory than they did when Barack Obama was up for reelection.  That was no accident.  Doug Jones has long cultivated a strong relationship with the black community in Alabama and his campaign strongly targeted black voters.  With the exception of the Obama elections, in Alabama the black community does not have a reputation of strong participation in elections, especially off-year special elections like this one.  Charles Barkley said it best during the victory celebration: For too long the black vote has been taken for granted by the Democratic Party in Alabama and the rest of the country and that will no longer work.

By way extension, it will no longer work for the party to continue take for granted other traditional segments of the Democratic coalition.  While we justifiably champion the rights of abused women, Hispanics, and the LGBT community, we cannot continue to ignore the needs of working people who have been falling further and further behind in the current economy.  In Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania this traditionally important segment of the Democratic base is as important to the party as is the black vote in Alabama.  The Democratic Party and its candidates must redevelop relationships with working people and reach out those who feel left behind by outsourcing and mechanization just as Doug Jones did to the black community in Alabama.

Organization Wins Elections:  Before Doug Jones initiated his campaign the Alabama Democratic Party was in shambles after two decades of debilitating state-wide defeats; outside help was needed.  While it wasn’t evident from the outside looking in, the national Democratic Party quietly went about organizing volunteers in each of Alabama’s counties in preparation for the election.  That effort was not advertised because of the well known tendency of Alabama voters to resent the intrusion of outsiders into their election processes.  But the DNC’s efforts were significant never the less.  Their get out the vote operations not only targeted large groups of Democratic voters in the metropolitan areas and counties where Alabama’s major universities are located; significant efforts were also mounted in sparsely populated rural counties where Moore was expected to do extremely well.  The DNC campaign’s to get out the vote in those rural counties were probably the deciding factor in a very close election. Moore’s campaign was unable to increase their victory margins as much as they would have liked in the rural areas of the state.

In the 2018 elections the DNC’s organizational efforts in local elections will be equally important and that level of commitment will require adequate funding.  Keep this in mind when you get requests for donations from the DNC in the lead up to the mid-term elections.  Democratic candidates for the House and Senate will need the strong support and expertise of the DNC to be successful in their district and state wide races.

Conclusions:  While again this election was one off and it remains exceedingly hard for any Democrat win against a decent Republican candidate in the State of Alabama under normal conditions, political insiders will tell you that Doug Jones had to run an almost perfect race to defeat Roy Moore in this Republican dominated state.  The lessons which our party can learn from the almost perfect execution of his campaign should be put to good use going forward.

Cajun     12/13/2017