Democrat Doug Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore, 50%-48%, in last week’s special U.S. Senate election in Alabama, one of the reddest states in the country. He is the first Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate from Alabama since 1992 (That Democrat, Richard Shelby, switched parties two years later and has been re-elected as a Republican four times since.). Texans last elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in 1988.
A little over 1.34M people voted in this week’s special U.S. Senate election in Alabama, which translated into 40.5% turnout of registered voters. That’s roughly the number of votes cast in Harris Co. in the 2016 general election, when turnout was 61%.
Jones’s win was the latest in a series of mostly Democratic gains in special and regular elections since Donald Trump was elected president. However, this election was likely less a referendum on Trump, or an indicator of a national trend, than a rejection of a profoundly flawed Republican candidate.
That said, there are five implications for Texas from this race.
A Democrat can win in a deeply red state. Yes, it took a perfect storm of circumstances, but Alabama will once again be represented by a Democrat in the U.S. Senate. There’s no storm yet in Texas, but many things, foreseen and unforeseen, can happen in the 10 months before early voting begins. Much has to change, but the first step is contesting each statewide office, believing those candidates can win and building a foundation for future success.
Every Democratic gain in a deep red county counts. In Alabama, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, 62%-34%, and Shelby defeated his Democratic challenger, 64%-36%, a year ago. Clinton won just 11 of the state’s 67 counties. A year later, Jones won 25 counties. Statewide, Jones received 15% more of the vote than Clinton. Importantly, Moore received a lower share of the vote than Trump in every single county, often by double-digit percentages.
In many Texas counties, a Republican’s share of the vote resembles a West Texas speed limit sign. In 2014, Wendy Davis received less than 20% of the vote in 124 counties. A 10% improvement across the board in those counties would represent a net change of 320K votes to the Democrat from the Republican. In that 2014 race, it would have shrunk Abbott’s margin of victory to not quite 650K. A 15% improvement would have reduced the margin to less than 500K.
One step to improving those margins is having Democrats on the ballot for Congress and the Legislature in most of these deep red counties. Indeed, most of these seats have at least one Democrat running.
The enthusiasm gap favors Democrats. In Alabama, Jones received 671K votes, or 8% fewer votes than Clinton received in 2016. Moore received 649K votes, less than half what Trump received. In other words, at least half of Trump’s voters did not come back to the polls for the special election to support the candidate Trump endorsed.
In Texas, we’ve seen several signs of an enthusiasm gap between the two parties. For the first time since 1994, more Democrats (362) are running for federal, statewide, legislative and board of education seats than Republicans, and Democrats are running for more seats than Republicans (344). More Democrats are running for those offices in 2018 than in any year since at least 1992, and they are contesting more seats than in any election year – including redistricting years – since at least 1992. While Democrats are running for nearly every seat held by a Republican, much of the Republican activity is focused on seats currently held by Republicans. There are more Texas House races involving Republicans challenging incumbent Republicans (28) than Republicans challenging incumbent Democrats (18). Democratic congressional challengers have raised significantly more money this cycle than in recent election cycles.
Enthusiasm does not necessarily translate into votes, but a lack of enthusiasm always translates into a lack of votes.
Tribal loyalty remains very strong. According to exit polls, 98% of self-identified Democrats voted for Jones and 91% of self-identified Republicans voted for Moore. Jones beat Moore, 51%-43%, among voters who identified themselves as “independent or something else.” That latter group represented less than a quarter of all voters. Nearly nine in 10 voters who approve of Trump’s job performance voted for Moore, and more than nine in 10 voters who disapprove of Trump’s job performance voted for Jones.
The implication is that partisans will stick with their party’s choice in almost every case. In this particular case, Moore’s troubles turned away just enough of his tribe – through outright defections to Jones, votes for a write-in candidate and Republican voters staying home – to give Jones the victory.
Like Texas, Alabama gives voters the option to vote for all candidates of a political party with a single punch or action. Like Texas, more Alabama voters use that single-punch, straight-party option than vote a full ballot. In the 2016 general election, 55% of Alabama voters cast a straight-party ballot, second nationally only to Texas (63%).
In 2014, Texas Republicans enjoyed a straight-party vote advantage of nearly 650K votes. To overcome that margin, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis would have needed 68% of the full-ballot vote to win. She received 42%.
Republicans risk losing the middle. The “big tent” preached by President Reagan is showing signs of shrinking. According to exit polls, 44% of Alabama special election voters describe themselves as “born-again or evangelical Christians.” Moore received 80% of the vote from this group. He received just 22% of the vote from everyone else. Moore won among voters aged 65 and older by 19 points. Jones prevailed by 23 points among voters aged 30-44 and by 22 points among voters aged 18-29. Jones won, 56%-42%, among voters with children in the household, and Jones almost evenly split the suburban vote, long a pillar of Republican strength.
In Texas, movement conservative groups have been simultaneously pushing a social policy agenda opposed by business conservatives while pushing moderate Republicans out of office.
HD134 could be a bellwether for this effect. Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and leading movement conservative groups have endorsed challenger Susanna Dokupil over incumbent Rep. Sarah Davis (R-Houston) in a swing district. HD134 had one of the lowest rates of straight-party voting in the state, providing sufficient opportunity for a Democratic candidate to overcome whatever straight-party advantage the Republican nominee will likely enjoy.
Younger voters seem less likely to agree with the movement conservative agenda than older voters. According to an October 2017 University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, 47% of voters under age 29 said legislation regarding transgender use of public restrooms was “not at all important.” A third of voters 65 and older said it was “very important.” According to the June 2017 UT/TT poll, nearly three quarters of voters under 30 believed “gays and lesbians should have the right to marry” versus 43% of voters over age 65.
However, tribal loyalty remains strong. Jones won primarily because Moore was a bridge too far for just enough Republican voters to stray from the party label. For a Democrat to win statewide in Texas, the Democratic brand has to become stronger, and more welcoming, to a wider variety of voters and candidates. Otherwise, moderate Republican voters will remain moderate Republican voters.
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