Alabama election puts Congress up for grabs

By Aristophanes, Hermes and Dolos

Editor’s Note: The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity, grammar and style.

Aristophanes (Ari): Tuesday night, Democrats scored a win in one of the reddest of red states. Former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones bested his Republican rival, the controversial former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, to become the first Democrat the state has sent to the U.S. Senate in 25 years. The current estimate is that Jones will end up with a final vote share 1.6 percentage points ahead of Moore.

Looming large over this race were credible accusations of child molestation from decades past against Moore, as well as the candidate’s long history of (to put it nicely) hardline archconservative views. It’s unclear how much the national environment, currently favorable to the Democrats, hurt Moore’s candidacy, versus how much his loss was a mere result of his personal unpopularity.

First, I want to ask each of you: Say you are Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell looking ahead to the 2018 midterm elections. How much has your calculus changed following the Alabama special election results?

Hermes: If the allegations didn’t happen, Moore would’ve won. Period. A moderately unpopular Republican should still beat a strong Democratic candidate in a state like Alabama. After the allegations, Moore just became a bit too unpopular, causing him to lose narrowly.

I think you have to consider your gameplan differently and play like you’re now the underdog, if you’re Sen. McConnell. If a Democrat can win in Alabama, a Democrat can win virtually anywhere. That doesn’t mean they will, but they certainly can.

Whether the pundits or polling puts Republicans as the favorite, you can’t think that way. President Trump is hurting the GOP brand.

Dolos: If I’m McConnell, first and foremost it’s imperative I get the tax bill passed this session, i.e., before Jones replaces the current holder of his seat, Sen. Luther Strange.

Hermes: I agree entirely. It also doesn’t help Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, both Republicans, are stepping away. The Tennessee situation, in particular, is similar to what we just saw in Alabama with the likely Blackburn/Bredesen general election showdown.

Dolos: But looking forward, suddenly I’m a lot more nervous about Democrats winning control of the Senate. I think I start to break with Trump more as his approval rating continues to fall. I almost bet Mitch tries to ignore Trump and focus on his Senate colleagues.

Ari: If I’m Mitch McConnell, I’m thinking I need to go on the offensive against Steve Bannon before he further deteriorates the quality of my general election candidates.

Bannon picked Moore. Had someone else won the primary, it’s likely Alabama wouldn’t be sending Doug Jones to the Senate right now.

If I’m McConnell, I would use Alabama as proof that Bannon is bad for the GOP, and could destroy the GOP’s current leverage on power in Washington, most notably in the Senate.

Hermes: I think McConnell will try to seek out more moderate conservatives to try to run, and yes, basically distance himself from Steve Bannon. This election would already show that. But he will surely face pressure from the president for doing this.

Dolos: I agree. In fact, McConnell’s former chief of staff attacked Bannon on Twitter for his role in costing the GOP a Senate seat in what should’ve been an easy win.

Ari: Yup, Dolos. Exactly what I was thinking as I typed. In the GOP civil war, McConnell now has new ammunition.

Hermes: Sadly for them, it’s what the “establishment” GOP members needed to prove their point. Otherwise Team Trump would just tell them they’re trying to impede.

Dolos: Bannon talked a big game, saying he was going to primary everyone but Ted Cruz. Tensions could come to a head when we reach primary season ahead of 2018.

Ari: And, you know, McConnell’s right on this: Bannon’s campaigns really do pose a risk to the Republicans’ Senate majority.

Hermes: What made Trump successful in the presidential primaries was the sheer number of candidates competing. He was able to build up a plurality of support as the anti-Trump forces split amongst several candidates. In 2018, the moderates won’t be split between Kasich, Bush, Rubio, etc., and can all unify more easily. Suddenly that 25 percent of the vote isn’t adequate.

Ari: So, something I’m wondering, and haven’t decided: In the long run, was a Doug Jones win better for the national-level GOP than a Roy Moore win? They did lose a Senate seat, and now the margin will soon be a slim 51–49, but they no longer have to contend with Roy Moore’s lunacy making the entire party look bad, and Steve Bannon has been knocked down a peg.

Also, Hermes, that’s a good point. Moore won the primary in part because (a) McConnell took down Rep. Mo Brooks early on, thus elevating Moore, and (b) the sitting Sen. Luther Strange had an air of corruption about him following the Gov. Robert Bentley scandal. (Strange, then the Alabama attorney general, was appointed to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions by the very governor he was supposedly investigating. That governor ultimately resigned in disgrace, but Luther still had his Senate seat. Some saw it as a payoff, although nothing’s been proven.)

Moore might not have won a normal primary, without McConnell attacking one candidate and the incumbent mired in a huge political scandal, is what I’m saying.

Dolos: You do have to wonder what the pressure on the GOP would’ve been had Moore been elected and presumably seated (i.e., not expelled from the Senate). But I still think Jones is worse for Republicans. Moore would’ve been a mostly reliable vote, and the bottom line is now Alabama has a blue senator for at least three years.

He was also too tall!

Hermes: Wasn’t McConnell discussing expelling Moore from the Senate immediately?

Dolos: It was being talked about, yes. But would it have happened? Trump would have been opposed to it, that’s for sure.

Ari: I’m skeptical they would’ve actually expelled Roy Moore. It’s a nearly unprecedented step to take.

Hermes: Apparently, the last time the U.S. actually went through with expelling a sitting senator was in 1862, in the midst of the Civil War.

Dolos: That’s my thinking, too. I bet McConnell would have shrugged it off as the people of Alabama letting their voice be heard.

Hermes: That is also what the White House said before explicitly endorsing Moore.

Ari: Or they would have merely censured Moore.

Hermes: And that hasn’t happened since 1990.

Ari: I want to take this back a bit to something brought up earlier. Personally, I’m not quite convinced a Doug Jones win wasn’t the best outcome from McConnell’s perspective. I have three reasons:

(1) Doug Jones will, in all likelihood, only be in the Senate for three years. Alabama is so red that, come 2020, when the seat is up for election again, it’s overwhelmingly likely it reverts back to the GOP. This is a loss, sure, but a short-term one.

(2) Roy Moore, because of the way partisan politics work, could have been a senator for life (assuming he wouldn’t have been expelled, which is a safe assumption, I think). That’s a long-term thorn in your side, and a long-term liability to the Republican brand nationally. Candidates like Moore especially hurt you with college-educated voters, racial minorities and suburbanite women. Those aren’t constituencies you want to alienate if your goal is to keep control of Congress. Moore could’ve compelled Democratic turnout in other states through his sheer awfulness.

(3) A Roy Moore win empowers Bannon’s crusade to topple GOP incumbents. As we talked about earlier, Bannon’s candidates are much less mainstream and, on average, are much weaker candidates for general elections. This would no doubt imperil your ability to win seats or even retain seats. A win for Bannon is a loss for the national GOP’s chances of broadening its appeal.

And I will say, Roy Moore would be a mostly reliable vote for McConnell’s agenda, but he might have been a very Rand Paul-esque senator. That’s not exactly as reliable a vote as you might wish for, and, thinking in the long term, at least now you have the option to put a party-line-toeing Republican in the 2020 Alabama race instead of being stuck with Moore long-term.

Hermes: How can you say Doug Jones has an overwhelming chance to lose in 2020? Does being the incumbent not mean something? Also, things can change a lot by then.

Ari: It’s Alabama, man. It’s a very, very, very red state. Incumbency matters, but it doesn’t provide that much of a boost.

Hermes: I’m not necessarily disagreeing with you. I just think Jones should still have a somewhat decent shot. Especially if his current coalition holds.

Dolos: The fact that Jones will have to run for re-election in a presidential year does not do him any favors. I could see that maybe, just maybe, the long game looks slightly better for the GOP with Moore not in the Senate, but in the short term, the Democrats are very close to retaking the majority.

Ari: That brings us to the next discussion: Now that the Senate has a 51–49 split, how have Democratic chances to retake the upper chamber changed? Are they now favored or at least close to being favored?

Dolos: Spoiler alert: They’ve gotten better.

Hermes: Absolutely, they’re a favorite! Granted, there are only eight seats they can gain, but they only need two of those eight to win the majority. Tennessee is one seat they might pick up. It’s probably a toss-up, now. Also, Sen. Ted Cruz should expect a good fight from Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who’s running against him in Texas.

This also assumes the Democrats win all 26 of the seats (including the two held by independents who caucus with the Democrats) they’re defending, though. And I don’t know how likely it is they go 26–0.

Dolos: Given the pro-Democrat national environment, it has to be at least even odds, which is incredible given how many seats Democrats have to defend in 2018.

Ari: I’m not sure I’m ready to put Democrats down as favored to retake the Senate in 2018. At best, I think it is now merely a toss-up, and that’s due to the sheer number of Trump-won states Democrats have to play defense in.

Dolos: Historically, incumbents of the party not in the White House rarely lose.

Ari: Yeah, Dolos, that is true. Even so, I’d say Democrats are on track to lose their seats in, for at least a few examples, Missouri and Indiana right now. Those are very red, very Trump-loving states.

Hermes: We’ve talked about this before, but there are many Democrats who are just getting old and have been representing their respective states for a long time now. Voters may want change. Think about Diane Feinstein, Bernie Sanders, Angus King, Bill Nelson, for example.

It’s hard to win in Indiana as a Democrat when the vice president is from there and of the opposite party.

Ari: Also, it’s hard to win in Missouri when the Democrat, Sen. Claire McCaskill, is seen as a “Washington insider” by many in the state, and the well-loved Republican attorney general is running against her.

Don’t forget: Missouri went 19 points in Trump’s favor. That’s a wide margin.

Dolos: #HowlinForHawley

Hermes: All right, so maybe it’s not as likely as I first thought. But the odds are certainly more optimistic for the Democrats after Doug Jones’ victory than before.

Ari: Josh Hawley, the attorney general, is about the best candidate the Missouri GOP could have gotten, in my opinion.

Hermes: Hawley seems like he’s got a bright future ahead of him. I might not agree with everything he stands for, but, as a person, he’s hard to dislike.

Dolos: That’s true. And in a presidential year, it’ll be tough for Democrats to escape the Trump effect. In 2016, for instance, Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri rode Trump’s coattails to re-election over Jason Kander, the Democrat.

Ari: Josh Hawley is the rising star Gov. Eric Greitens believes he, himself, is.

Hermes: He’s only 37 is the crazy thing. He’ll turn 38 at the end of the year.

Ari: He has a nice legal pedigree, and support from both the conservative and moderate sides of the Missouri GOP, which is a big deal.

Hermes: Degrees from Stanford and Yale — seriously.

Ari: Yes. In the 2016 attorney general primary, as we’ve talked about before, he came out of nowhere to trounce state Sen. Kurt Schaefer, one of the most powerful voices in the Missouri Republican Party at the time.

But anyway, I think it’s clear by now I think Josh Hawley is an excellent candidate. Let’s move on.

A bright spot for Democrats right now is former Gov. Phil Bredesen’s entrance into the Tennessee race.

In my opinion, there are four seats Democrats can possibly pick up in 2018: Nevada, Arizona, Texas and Tennessee. When Bredesen entered the Tennessee race, it elevated that to Democrats’ third-best pick up opportunity, in my mind.

Hermes: Yes! He was on the fence for several weeks but finally gave in and plans to run. I’ve written several articles about him already. He is a well-liked, moderate Democrat whom many Republicans voted for in prior elections — many who probably later voted for Trump.

Ari: I am with you on the Bredesen obsession, Hermes. Bredesen has already been elected statewide in Tennessee multiple times. That bodes well for the Democrats, but Tennessee is still a rather red state. That makes this one of the most interesting races to watch heading into 2018.

Hermes: Tennessee is about as red as Alabama, but Bredesen is the only Democrat who stands a chance. He has not specifically done any bashing of his likely opponent, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, or the president. He has said a lot of good things in interviews so far and I am really excited about him. He has name brand recognition for a party that is essentially the “blue-headed” stepchild of the state.

Ari: Hermes, what do you think of Blackburn as a candidate? Is she a strong contender or could the Tennessee Republican Party do better?

Hermes: She is a very strong, very dangerous candidate. Former Rep. Steven Fincher, a Republican from Memphis, will run against her, but it’s obvious Marsha is going to get the nomination. She was on the executive committee of the Trump transition team and has frequently pledged her support to the president. She is an incredibly strong candidate. It also helps her that most of the other strong candidates are running for governor, and term-limited incumbent Gov. Bill Haslam has decided not to enter the Senate race.

Ari: She’s clearly close to Trump, at least relatively — a strength, at present. But say Trump’s approval rating continues to drop before November 2018. Do you think Blackburn would struggle in that scenario?

Hermes: Absolutely not. If 48 percent of Alabamians voted for an objectively worse candidate in Roy Moore, Blackburn won’t have popularity issues. She’s been in Congress since 2003, and probably has more name-brand recognition than any other Republican at the state level — including Haslam.

Dolos: She could get Blackburned by minority voters, if you will.

Hermes: She’s no friend to that demographic, anyway. Blackburn frequently makes rounds on the cable news networks, giving me the feeling that’s part of why she is well-known statewide.

Ari: Tennessee seems like a toss-up to me. Maybe a slight Republican favorite, but only slight. There’s no incumbency advantage there for Republicans, because Corker is resigning.

Hermes: I agree. But considering how most Senate elections go there, that’s about the best Democrats can hope for. Polls pretty much have them neck-and-neck right now in terms of favorability. I still believe Roy Moore’s loss can help boost Bredesen.

Ari: What do we think about the other possible Democratic pick-ups: Arizona, Nevada and Texas?

Dolos: Arizona and Nevada feel like toss-ups to me. Flake isn’t running for re-election, and he wasn’t exactly looking like a strong candidate even before his decision to retire. In Nevada, Democrats have shown the ability to win statewide and Dean Heller is vulnerable.

Texas, though, is a different story.

Hermes: Dolos said basically everything I was about to say about Nevada — Heller barely won in 2012 and polling isn’t favorable for him to even win the nomination back (nor is it unfavorable).

Ari: Dolos, I’d honestly say even more than a toss-up, in the case of Nevada. Hillary Clinton won that state (albeit narrowly), and the national environment is much more favorable to Democrats now than it was then.

Hermes: Dolos, former University of Nevada, Las Vegas basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian’s son is going to run against Heller.

Anyway, I agree with Ari.

Ari: Arizona is tricky. How do you rate a Republican-leaning state in a Democrat-leaning national environment? But it does help Democrats that there’s no incumbent to run against — as mentioned earlier, Sen. Jeff Flake is retiring rather than seeking re-election, leaving the seat open.

Hermes: Sabato’s Crystal Ball lists the following seats as toss-ups: Flake (AZ), Nelson (FL), Donnelly (IN), McCaskill (MO) and Heller (NV).

Ari: Yes. And I believe the Cook Political Report has Tennessee as a toss-up, as well.

Hermes: Sabato lists Tennessee as likely Republican, but, like I said, I think it only leans Republican right now.

Dolos: Democrats would need to sweep those states to secure a majority, unless they can pick up a win elsewhere.

Hermes: Did anyone realistically expect Doug Jones to win? Then I think we could, potentially (though probably not), see a Democrat surprise somewhere.

Ari: Um, I did!

Hermes: Let me rephrase that: In 2016, did anyone expect it?

Ari: Absolutely not.

Hermes: Exactly my point. A lot could change in the next year — for both parties.

Ari: Yes. Is that type of uncertainty riskier for Democrats, though, considering they’re defending a larger number of seats? What if we see more sitting senators hit with sexual assault allegations, as Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota was recently. He was pushed into resigning. By the way, his seat is now on the slate for 2018, as well.

2018 could get very messy.

Dolos: Allegations could certainly impact both chambers of Congress in unexpected ways. Also, the GOP tax bill could pass. Who knows how that will change the national climate.

Hermes: According to some, CNN and the Washington Post are planning a story that would expose 20 to 30 members of Congress. Until it actually happens, though, it’s good to have a healthy skepticism.

From a former journalist for the Wall Street Journal:

Ari: You know, there’s another possible pick-up for Democrats.

Hermes: Which is?

Dolos: Is there?

Ari: Yes, believe it or not. As sad as it is to say: Sen. John McCain’s seat in Arizona. If his health really goes south in the next few months, he may have to resign for that reason. That would put his seat up for election in 2018.

Hermes: That is true. I don’t see him in office for too much longer.

Ari: Looking at his medical situation from the outside reports we have, it, unfortunately, does not look good.

Anyway, what do y’all think about Texas?

Hermes: I still expect Ted Cruz to win at this point. The race only leans Republican instead of being a likely Republican win, in my book.

Ari: Same. Texas doesn’t exactly love Trump the way other red states do. And Cruz has a terrible approval rating there.

Hermes: Ted just has the likability of a wet paper towel.

Ari: And Rep. Beto O’Rourke seems like a decent candidate on the Democratic side.

Hermes: I agree. I just feel like there’s not much we can say until the campaigning starts for now.

Dolos: Vanity Fair called O’Rourke “Kennedyesque.”

Hermes: Indeed. I had that vibe, too, and was made fun of for saying that.

Dolos: And way too early polling data has shown them even at 30 percent each.

Ari: Dolos, with, as you know, a ton of undecideds. But, still, that is something.

Dolos: He’s charismatic, passionate and he’s better looking than Ted Cruz.

Hermes: That isn’t hard.

Ari: Final question: Now that Democrats only need a net gain of two seats, not three, to regain the Senate majority in 2018, where do the odds currently stand of a Democratic takeover? For this, I’m assuming, at minimum, a 51-49 split in Democrats’ favor for it to be considered a “Democratic takeover.” Last time we discussed this, well before the Alabama special election, Dolos gave it a 15 percent, with Hermes and I both giving Democrats a 20 percent chance of retaking the upper chamber.

Now, I’m giving it a cautious 45 percent. But that could easily change.

Dolos: Democrats still need to catch a few breaks, but the national environment looks so good they just might get them. I was going to say 45 as well, but to avoid conforming, put me down for an even 50–50.

Hermes: I was more optimistic until I started talking to you guys, but now I see it’s harder for Democrats to win than I expected. I’ll give them a 40 percent chance.

The Democrats gained major momentum with their win Tuesday night, but there’s still work to be done if they want to take back Congress. ■

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