Democrats are cautiously hopeful that controversial former judge Roy Moore's GOP primary victory in Alabama on Tuesday has created the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a competitive Senate race in the deep-red state.
Still, Democrats recognize that their party's nominee, Doug Jones, faces an incredibly difficult path. And the race holds risks for Democrats nationally, too: Fresh off a string of much-hyped special election races in red congressional districts that ended in failure, the Alabama Senate race threatens to waste Democrats' money and enthusiasm on an unwinnable campaign.
Jones, a former federal prosecutor, is the party’s best-case scenario. Jones is a moderate Democrat with a storied career that includes prosecuting the 1963 Birmingham church bombers as a U.S. attorney. And he has a claim to bipartisanship, after being appointed by a Democratic president and confirmed by a Republican Senate.
But even Republicans who slammed Moore just days ago have swallowed their pride and lined up behind the nominee in the wake of his victory, meaning that the state GOP will likely be united by election day in December.
“It takes a lot of energy and organization and money to put this on the map … some of these investments will have to happen even before what the pathway really is, to make sure he has the resources to exploit an advantage,” one Democratic Senate strategist told The Hill.
“But I feel very confident about that surge working out for him and him getting some support.”
Moore sailed to victory in Tuesday’s GOP primary runoff over Sen. Luther StrangeLuther Johnson StrangePandemic proves importance of pharmaceutical innovation The Hill's Morning Report - Biden assails 'epidemic' of gun violence amid SC, Texas shootings Trump faces test of power with early endorsements MORE (R-Ala.), even as the entire GOP establishment fought against him. As the Republican nominee, Moore is the favorite to win the special election to serve out the rest of Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTrump criticizes Justice for restoring McCabe's benefits McCabe wins back full FBI pension after being fired under Trump Overnight Hillicon Valley — Apple issues security update against spyware vulnerability MORE's Senate term.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden says he's open to altering, eliminating filibuster to advance voting rights Pelosi says GOP senators 'voted to aid and abet' voter suppression for blocking revised elections bill Manchin insists he hasn't threatened to leave Democrats MORE (R-Ky.), the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund all pushed hard on Strange’s behalf. McConnell also helped to bring President Trump on board, even as allies like former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon backed Moore.
Republican groups, lead by the Senate Leadership Fund, spent more than $10 million to boost Strange and attack Moore. But now, the very same groups that sounded the alarm on Moore are falling in line behind the nominee.
But Jones could benefit from the drawn-out Republican primary, which saw the airwaves filled with Republican-aligned ads slamming Moore.
The race also saw reporters unearth a litany of Moore’s most controversial statements throughout his career. Moore made his name as a staunch religious conservative that twice lost his position as chief justice on the state Supreme Court thanks to ignoring court orders on the separation of church and state and on same-sex marriage.
Democrats are ready to recycle those attacks in the coming months.
“A lot of the concerns that Republicans were putting up on air, we agree with. We do think that he’s dangerous; we do think he’s embarrassing,” the Democratic strategist said.
The Democratic path has three parts: depress Republican turnout by highlighting Moore's controversies, shift as many moderate Republicans over to Jones as possible and turn out Democrats.
Josh Moon, a reporter and columnist for the Alabama Register, told The Hill that he expects many Strange supporters to either stay home or vote for Jones.
But Moore can likely afford to lose some Strange voters — about 420,000 Republicans turned out in the August primary, compared to 164,000 who turned out for the lower-profile Democratic primary. Moore turned out 262,000 voters on Tuesday, a number that will only grow when Strange voters rally around the GOP nominee.
“There’s a huge hole for Moore to make up,” Moon, who is supportive of Jones, said.
“But if you can inspire Democrats to go out to the polls and vote for the guy, you can turn that around. And if you are looking for the perfect villain, Roy Moore is the best person.”
Jones is almost assured to be outspent. Moore has a larger fundraising account to draw on, raising $1.4 million during the primary even as Strange monopolized the Republican fundraising landscape.
But the Democrat’s campaign says they’ve seen a “surge” of fundraising in the last 24 hours that has helped him raise $1 million so far this cycle, far more than any Democratic Senate candidate in the state has raised in recent history. (Democratic nominee Ronald Crumpton raised just $4,559 in 2016 to challenge Republican Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyBlack Hawk pilot shot down in Somalia jumps into Alabama Senate race Senate Democrats ditch Hyde amendment for first time in decades Senate Democrats unveil remaining spending bills, teeing up clash with Republicans MORE.)
Joe Trippi, a longtime Democratic strategist who is advising Jones, told The Hill that be believes the contrast between the two candidates will help drive support and dollars Jones’s way.
“Roy Moore can speak for himself, but when he does, that helps us raise money,” he said.
Jones has already received help from national Democrats. Still, it's clear that the party is treading carefully, both to avoid setting up another disappointment and to help Jones appeal to moderate voters.
The Democratic National Committee has sent a few fundraising appeals on his behalf, gave Jones its voter data file and dispatched staff in the early portion of Jones’s campaign to help with his messaging and outreach.
Democrats will likely be poring over polling in the coming weeks to decide whether Jones’s race is worth the investment and to figure out whether Jones would be hurt by a closer affiliation with the national party.
“We want our candidates to win, we want to be able to help them and do all that we can,” the Democratic strategist said.
“But it’s also very important to not become a liability. … It would be especially devastating if [national Democrats] became the reason that he lost.”
But that cautious approach will likely spark frustration among more aggressive segments of the party, who believe it has to play to win in every race, a sentiment that’s magnified by their disdain for Moore.
Vox’s Matthew Yglesias wrote a post late Tuesday night arguing that, while Jones is likely to lose, the Democratic Party needs to fight hard to stand up for its values in Alabama.
“He’s a long shot, but it’s time to take a stand,” the article’s subheadline reads.
Matt Blizek, the elections mobilization director for the liberal MoveOn.org, agreed with that sentiment in a brief interview with The Hill. He argued that Democrats have the same opportunity in Alabama that Republicans did in Massachusetts in 2010, when Republican Scott Brown won a special election in the deep-blue state.
Blitzek framed the battle against Moore, who has called for homosexuality to be illegal, as a moral imperative.
“It’s a worthwhile fight to have to say we did everything we could do to stop someone as radical as Roy Moore from getting into the Senate and to support a candidate like Doug Jones, who is running on core Democratic values,” he said.
“And by making [Republicans] compete for this race, we are showing that as far as the modern-day Republican Party goes, it is Roy Moore’s party.”
The vast majority of Republicans are not concerned. They believe that the more than two months between the primary and the general election will help to heal divisions and that Trump has promised to campaign “like hell” for Moore in a state where he’s deeply popular.
But Steve Flowers, a former Alabama Republican state House member, told The Hill that there’s an outside chance disdain for Moore among urban Republicans could open the door for an “anomaly.”
“George Wallace used to say: More people in Alabama vote against someone than for someone,” he said.