Opinion: Can the GOP avoid more losses like Alabama next year?

Dec 13, 2017

Now we know what it takes for the Republicans to lose in a deep-red state like Alabama.

Start with a special election. Add an interim replacement whose appointment came amid somewhat sketchy circumstances. Mix in a now-standard fight between the establishment and the self-proclaimed “swamp drainers.” Let the two factions go to a run-off while the Democrats raise money and organize. Watch in amazement as the president supports the interim replacement, but strongly hints he actually favors the challenger. Nominate the challenger, a man who already has a history of faring more poorly than other GOP candidates in statewide races. Watch in shock as that man is credibly accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct when they were teenagers and he was a grown man. Let the shock deepen as the nominee stumbles but refuses to step down, even though there’s time to find a Plan B. Let additional details and accusations drip, drip, drip.

And that — all of it — is how you get Sen.-elect Doug Jones, D-Alabama.

There is no Sen.-elect Jones without GOP nominee Roy Moore. And unless GOP primary voters across America decide to nominate a slew of candidates in next year’s midterm elections as fatally flawed as Moore, Jones’ shocking win in Tuesday’s run-off isn’t much of a template for other long-shot Democrats.

Yes, Democrats organized furiously, pumped in the funding and boosted turnout far above what’s typical in a special election. But they did virtually the same thing in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District earlier this year and fell short. Had the Alabama GOP nominated a candidate the caliber of Karen Handel — or simply kept the unloved interim senator, Luther Strange — we’d probably be talking about a different outcome.

Even the closest analogue in recent memory, Scott Brown’s stunning win in deep-blue Massachusetts to replace Ted Kennedy in 2010, doesn’t quite cover it. Yes, the Democrat in that race, Martha Coakley, was an awful candidate who, for starters, didn’t know a Red Sox World Series hero (Curt Schilling) from a Yankees fan. But that election also turned in large part on the policy debates at the time — especially the one over Obamacare — and voter angst over Democrats’ filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

There is virtually no sign that was the case in Alabama. According to an exit poll, half of voters Tuesday wanted the GOP to control the Senate, vs. 44 percent who preferred Democrats. But about 8 percent of those who favored GOP control didn’t vote for Moore, including 2 percent who wrote in a candidate.

It takes a bad candidate running a bad campaign to turn off voters who want that candidate’s party to be in charge. Roy Moore was that candidate.

Not that the GOP should be complacent, or Democrats less than exuberant about 2018. The No. 1 fundamental in our current politics is voter unease with giving either of our widely disliked major parties too much power for too long. If that isn’t specifically why Jones beat Moore in Alabama, it still remains a very relevant fact going into next year.

The GOP will have to work hard at candidate recruitment and vetting, staying unified and on message, and the usual elements of organization and fund-raising — not to mention notching some legislative wins in Congress — if it’s to avoid the usual fate of the majority party in midterms. The results from Alabama suggest the party’s not ready to do all that.