Five takeaways from the Alabama Senate upset

Five takeaways from the Alabama Senate upset
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The results of Tuesday’s shocking Alabama Senate special election will likely reverberate far beyond its borders.

Democrats won a Senate seat in Alabama for the first time since 1992, with Democrat Doug Jones narrowly defeating embattled Republican Roy Moore.

The unexpected victory dealt a huge blow to the GOP. President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump nominates Jeffrey Rosen to replace Rosenstein at DOJ McCabe says ‘it’s possible’ Trump is a Russian asset McCabe: Trump ‘undermining the role of law enforcement’ MORE, who fully got behind Moore after many Republicans abandoned him following a series of sexual misconduct allegations, will take a hit with Moore’s loss. And Senate Republicans are down another vote amid their efforts to pass tax reform.

Jones’s victory also has political implications ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, since Democrats can now see the Senate majority in sight. 

Here are five takeaways from Alabama’s historic special election:

  1. Black voters propelled Jones

Jones campaign officials knew that they needed to boost black turnout to have a chance at an upset in a state as red as Alabama, and they got exactly that.

While black voters in Alabama make up about a quarter of the eligible voting population, exit polls found that about 30 percent of those who cast ballots were black. And Jones, who prosecuted two Ku Klux Klan members for the bombing of a black church in Birmingham during the civil rights era, won more than 90 percent of those votes.

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The campaign conducted a carefully orchestrated push to maximize black turnout in the final days. Jones spent the weekend with Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerSanders campaign reports raising M in less than a day Gillibrand uses Trump Jr. tweet to fundraise Trump: Bernie Sanders 'missed his time' for White House MORE (D-N.J.) and Rep. Terri SewellTerrycina (Terri) Andrea SewellCongressional Black Caucus faces tough decision on Harris, Booker Former staffer accuses Jackson Lee of retaliation after rape claim Dems offer measure to raise minimum wage to per hour MORE (D-Ala.), stopping off at black churches and focusing specifically on the Birmingham area. NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley, an Alabama native, showed up for a rally on the eve of the election.

The turnout is made all the more impressive by the lack of state party infrastructure. But local leaders in the black community picked up the slack.

A new law passed by the legislature this year had the effect of expanding voting rights to felons whose voting status had previously been unclear. Local leaders in the black community had been registering voters with criminal records for months in light of the new law clarifying their status, and hit the ground on Tuesday to bring people to the polls.  

  1. Enough people cast write-in votes to make a difference

Some Republicans, most notably Alabama Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyHow the border deal came together Winners and losers in the border security deal GOP braces for Trump's emergency declaration MORE, encouraged Alabamians to reject Moore in favor of casting a ballot for a write-in candidate.

It turns out enough Alabamians followed his lead to make a difference in the race.

Jones defeated Moore by 1.5 percentage points, while the write-in vote was slightly larger than the margin between the two major-party nominees. More than 22,000 vote, or 1.7 percent, were cast for a name not on the ballot.

It’s unclear who those voters would have supported if they didn’t go for a write-in candidate, but it likely siphoned away more votes from Moore. Moderate GOP voters who cast write-in ballots were likely looking for an alternative to Moore given the sexual misconduct allegations, but couldn’t stomach voting for a Democrat. 

  1. Bannon and Trump lose clout

Moore’s defeat was a massive blow to Trump and his former chief strategist, Breitbart News head Stephen Bannon.

Bannon stood by Moore through the mounting allegations against him, while Trump eventually backed Moore again after his polls improved weeks after the allegations first broke.  

Both campaigned for the embattled candidate in the final days before the election, even as most Washington Republicans sought as much distance from Moore as possible.

Over Twitter, Trump blamed write-in votes. But it was the second consecutive Republican loss in a high-profile race, after Republican Ed Gillespie’s losing gubernatorial bid in Virginia last month. Despite several early special election victories, Trump’s political clout appears diminished, while his support for Moore will haunt him for some time.

The news is much worse for Bannon, who has been plotting challenges to every GOP Senate incumbent on the ballot in 2018, with the exception of Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzO'Rourke mulling another Senate run as well as presidential bid Texas senator introduces bill to produce coin honoring Bushes Trump working on labels for 2020 Dems: report MORE (Texas). 

Bannon has been engaged in a bitter battle with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDems think they're beating Trump in emergency declaration battle Sanders: 'Not crazy' about nixing the Senate filibuster McCabe: No one in 'Gang of Eight' objected to FBI probe into Trump MORE (R-Ky.). McConnell’s allies, who had been warning for months that Bannon was risking an easy GOP win in Alabama by backing Moore through the primary, were stocked with ample ammunition in the wake of Tuesday’s results.

“Not only did Steve Bannon cost us a critical Senate seat in one of the most Republican states in the country, but he also dragged the president of the United States into this fiasco,” said Steven Law, the president of the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund. 

Bannon’s allies argued that the impact would be short-lived and that conservative voters would blame McConnell for throwing the election to a Democrat. But while the war between Bannon and McConnell is just getting started, Alabama dealt Bannon a humiliating defeat.

  1. The Senate is in play in 2018

Democrats’ unexpected victory in Alabama has put the Senate in play for next year’s midterms.

As the party looks to flip 24 seats to take back the House, Democrats are also feeling more emboldened about their Senate prospects, even though they are still largely playing defense.

Democrats are defending more than twice the amount of seats as Republicans and need to protect 10 seats in states that Trump carried in 2016. The president won half of those seats by double-digit margins. 

But Jones’s victory brings them one seat closer to taking back the majority. They only need to flip two more Senate seats, and Democrats are so far feeling confident about pulling off victories in GOP-held seats in Nevada and Arizona. If both those seats flip and Democrats successfully hold their line — a tall task — they could win back the majority.  

And because Democrats over-performed in a deep-red seat, they are feeling more bullish about competing in other states that went big for Trump and haven’t elected a Democrat to the Senate in decades.

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, who is also a former mayor of San Antonio, tweeted at Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to “be afraid” ahead of his 2018 reelection race. Cruz will likely face Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), who has proved to be a prolific fundraiser and has won endorsements from several progressive groups.

  1. McConnell has a slimmer margin in the Senate

Jones’s victory also means that Republicans will be down one vote in the Senate. The party’s 51-49 majority means they can’t afford more than one defection during a vote. 

The victory comes at a critical time for tax reform, which Republicans are trying to shepherd through conference committee so it can go to a final vote in both chambers. 

Trump argued that Republicans needed a Moore victory so that he could vote with the party to pass the tax bill and finally deliver Republicans a major legislative success ahead of 2018.

It’s not clear whether Jones will be seated before the tax bill passes. McConnell said Tuesday before results came in that the election’s winner wouldn’t be seated this year, while Alabama officials say they need two weeks to certify the results.

If he’s seated before the tax bill can pass, Jones, who hasn’t indicated how he’d vote on it, gives Republicans less room for GOP defections. When they passed the initial Senate plan, only GOP Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerSasse’s jabs at Trump spark talk of primary challenger RNC votes to give Trump 'undivided support' ahead of 2020 Sen. Risch has unique chance to guide Trump on foreign policy MORE (Tenn.) voted with Democrats against the measure.

If that were to happen again, Republicans couldn’t lose any more votes, and Vice President Pence would need to be called in to break the tie.