Decision 2017: Alabama US Senate special election runoff

For two decades, Jeff Sessions represented Alabama in the United States Senate. Earlier this year, President Donald Trump chose Sessions to be Attorney General, and a special election was called to fill his vacant seat. Both parties held their primaries on August 15, and on the Democratic side, Doug Jones received 64% of the primary vote.

On the Republican side, appointed incumbent Luther Strange and former Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore advanced to the runoff (Moore led 39-33%). While Senator Strange brought President Trump in to campaign for him shortly before the runoff, his efforts were unsuccessful: Moore upset Senator Strange 55-45% in a populist wave that similarly got Donald Trump both the Republican nomination and the Presidency last year. What are the takeaways from this race?

  • Rank and file Republican voters are disgruntled with their leadership – Much was made of the fact that millions of dollars were spent by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Strange’s behalf, yet in a JMC poll, respondents would by a 4.5:1 margin be less likely to support Senator Strange for that very reason;
  • Being a Republican incumbent is not a secure electoral position right now, and;
  • A heavy financial advantage (such as the one Sen. Strange enjoyed) does not always guarantee victory.

Ironically, the Trump endorsement of Senator Strange was misdirected: there was considerable overlap between his voter base and Moore’s (NOT Sen. Strange’s) voter base: the four urban counties (Jefferson, Madison, Mobile, and Montgomery) cast 30% of the total vote (down from 31% in the primary), and Strange had a relatively narrow 52-48% lead (he led 34-28% over Moore in the primary). The six suburban counties cast 19% of the vote (up from 18% in the primary) and Moore led 54-46% (he led 37-33% in the primary). It was the remaining (and more rural) 57 counties that ran up the score for Moore: they favored Moore 59-41% in the runoff and 46-32% in the primary. Total turnout was 480K, or a 13% increase from the primary.

As a footnote, JMC polled this race once in the primary and twice in the runoff. His last poll showed an eight point (or 50-42%) lead for Moore; more importantly, voters by a 52-36% margin felt he was qualified to be a United States Senator. That is why the millions of dollars spent by the GOP Establishment attacking Judge Moore (as well as the much touted Trump endorsement of Senator Strange) didn’t move the needle: Alabama Republican voters already had an existing opinion (either pro or con) of Judge Moore.

This race between Roy Moore and Democrat Doug Jones will be settled on December 12 – during the holiday season. While Moore would be favored in this heavily Republican state (72% of August 15 primary voters selected a Republican ballot, and Trump carried the state 62-34% over Hillary Clinton), a lot depends on the extent to which Republicans unify behind Moore’s candidacy. And to what extent national Democrats, after investing heavily in a U.S. House race in Georgia but coming up short, would be willing to aid the Democratic candidate.