If Democrats have as clever a phrase describing Doug Jones’ upset in Alabama’s special Senate election Tuesday night, I haven’t heard it. But they do hope Jones will be their Brown as the 2018 midterm elections loom.
Democrats would like to see Jones’ narrow defeat of embattled Republican Roy Moore as a harbinger of 2018 success, as voters rise up against President Trump, who is ending his first year in office with historically low approval ratings. Democrats have seen the House as being in play for months and Jones’ election improves their odds in the Senate, despite an electoral map for the upper chamber next year that will be very favorable to Republicans.
The parallels are obvious: The party in power blew what should have been winnable Senate races in states where they were heavily favored. Obama had received nearly 62 percent of the vote in Massachusetts in 2008. Trump did slightly better in Alabama last year.
Brown was elected to take the seat that once belonged to Ted Kennedy, the liberal “Lion of the Senate,” filling the remainder of his term. Kennedy died in 2009. Jones is taking the seat vacated by Jeff Sessions, an exponent of Trump-style conservatism with an emphasis on borders, immigration control, national sovereignty, and economic populism before Trump. Sessions resigned to be attorney general.
Both races took place against the backdrop of activist energy against the party in the White House. Brown was buoyed by the Tea Party on the Right, Jones was somewhat more quietly linked to the Resistance on the Left.
There are some important differences, however. Martha Coakley, the Democrat running against Brown, was a flawed candidate. But she was in the mainstream of the Democratic Party and no scandals comparable to those that engulfed the Moore campaign. Moore, who was controversial even within his own party to start with, was accused of making sexual overtures (and worse) to girls as young as 14 while he was in his 30s.
Brown had enjoyed some prior political success running in rare suburban swing districts in Massachusetts. He had never before run statewide, but he sought a variety of state and local offices without ever losing an election, something that could be said of few Bay State Republicans. His mix of mild fiscal conservatism and social centrism was a good fit for the commonwealth politically.
While Jones sounded the right notes about being in the “center of the road” in a press conference Wednesday, he is more liberal than the typical Alabama voter and up until recently made little effort to hide that fact. When he won his primary, he was thought to be a sacrificial lamb who would surely lose to the Republican nominee. It’s possible Moore was the only statewide candidate he could have beaten.
This raises another key difference between the two surprise special election winners. Brown explicitly campaigned on breaking the Democrats’ filibuster-proof Senate majority and becoming the 41st vote against Obamacare. Jones mostly tried to avoid interrupting as Moore unraveled in the national spotlight.
National Democrats who worked on Jones’ behalf quietly spoke to Alabama Democratic voters without trying to leave much of an impression on the rest of the state’s electorate — for good reason, since to do otherwise would have surely backfired. It’s one of several reasons Democrats’ comparisons of the Senate voting on tax reform before Jones is seated with Brown and Obamacare ring hollow.
Of course, Brown ultimately proved helpless to stop Obamacare and disappointed a lot of his most conservative supporters as he tried to remain politically viable in Massachusetts. It remains to be seen whether history repeats itself with Jones, tax reform, and the liberals celebrating his election now.
All this is why Jones is susceptible to becoming like Brown in a way that Democrats will not like: an incumbent who won’t be able to hold on to his seat in a presidential election year and is potentially replaced by an ideological polar opposite. Brown lost to liberal folk hero Elizabeth Warren in 2012, although he was at least competitive against her, meanwhile Jones is going to have to be awfully creative to avoid losing to a more conventional Republican in 2020 while Trump is presumably on the ballot.