The US Senate special election race in Alabama to replace the seat vacated by Jeff Sessions has finally concluded. Democrat Doug Jones defeated Republican Moore 50-48%. Jones’ margin of victory was 20,700 votes, while another 22,800 Alabamians chose a write-in candidate. From an analysis of the results, what lessons are there to be learned from this race, and what are the implications for the 2018 midterm elections?
White collar professionals matter
This voter bloc for decades was arguably the bedrock of the Republican voter base across the country. This began to change starting with the 1992 Presidential election, when affluent professionals in places like Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia shifted towards the Democrats, and this shift arguably built the “blue wall” of northern/Midwestern/Pacific Rim states that made it significantly more difficult for a Republican Presidential candidate to attain the 270 electoral votes needed to win. Similarly at the Presidential level, Republicans saw further erosion of this voter base last year in places like Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston, and even locally in East Baton Rouge and Jefferson Parishes.
While this erosion didn’t ultimately matter in the Presidential election (as Donald Trump made equal, if not greater inroads, among rural and/or blue collar voters), it is a game changer in areas with a substantial bloc of white collar, professional voters (typically found in urban areas). In various elections this year, Republicans under performed in affluent areas of Atlanta, and they had an abysmal performance in statewide/legislative races in New Jersey and Virginia.
This erosion similarly occurred last night in Alabama if the results are analyzed at the county/regional level. And given that Roy Moore was on the ballot in 2012 and even then under performed relative to Mitt Romney’s 2012 showing in Alabama, it’s easy to grasp increasing problems Republicans are having with this voter bloc. In rural and suburban counties, Moore’s showing last night was nearly identical to his 2012 showing: in the rural counties, he received 53% in 2012/54% last night. Similarly, in the suburban counties, he received 65% in 2012/62% last night. And in the counties containing medium sized towns, he received 61% in 2012/62% last night.
It was Moore’s weakness among white collar professional voters in the better educated/urbanized counties that cost him the election: the two university counties containing Auburn and Alabama gave Moore 49% of the vote in 2012 and 41% last night – a substantial 8% drop in support, in other words. And in the four urbanized counties containing Birmingham, Huntsville, Mobile, and Montgomery (which have a noticeable population of white collar professionals), Moore could only attain 40% in his 2012 race but slipped further to 35% last night (Trump narrowly carried these counties by 3,000 votes over Hillary Clinton).
While the immediate assessment of this race is that Republicans lost a Senate seat in Alabama that should never have been a contest to begin with, it’s the shifting patterns of partisan support since 2016 that should concern Republicans. Because while Trump under performed in white collar precincts last year, many of those areas still voted Republican last year in Congressional and legislative races. That has begun to change this year, as Democrats made gains in affluent areas across the county up and down the ballot. And given that over 20 Republican US House members reside in districts that supported Hillary Clinton, Republicans can ill afford to lose these districts if they want to maintain control of the U.S. House.
While the quantitative aspects of this demographic shift have already been discussed, there is a qualitative aspect as well: part of winning elections (as was apparent in Alabama) is having quality candidates. And to get quality candidates to run, they have to believe they have a chance to win. And nothing creates that perception like upset victories for their party. Similar dynamics were apparent in 1993/4 (when Republicans won in Los Angeles, New York City, Virginia, New Jersey, and in rural (formerly) Democratic districts in Kentucky and Oklahoma. Or 2010 with Republican wins in New Jersey, Virginia, and the Scott Brown upset in Massachusetts.
Given that recent victories, combined with poor Presidential approval ratings, have created the perception of a more favorable climate for Democrats, Democrats are more energized, and already, candidate qualifying for 2018 elections has concluded in Illinois and Texas, and in those two states, Democrats have contested every Republican held U.S. House seat – something that certainly was not the case in 2016 or previous election cycles.
The Alabama race should be a “wake up call” for Republicans in terms of recognizing that the 2018 elections will be more difficult for them, and that the erosion of support from ancestrally Republican white professionals is not something that should be taken lightly.