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Alabama Senate: Jones Now Narrowly Favored

A Commentary By Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The consequences of the awful allegations against Roy Moore; plus, stirrings of an upset in Tennessee?

It’s amazing to write, and there’s time for our outlook to change, but here goes: A Democrat is now a narrow favorite to win a Senate special election in Alabama. We’re changing our rating of the Dec. 12 special election from Likely Republican all the way to Leans Democratic.

Republicans already were deeply worried about former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore’s (R) Senate candidacy even before he defeated appointed Sen. Luther Strange (R) in a runoff. Still, even a below-average GOP Senate candidate should still be able to hold Alabama, one of the hardest states for a Democrat to win statewide in the Union: By percentage, the Yellowhammer State was President Donald Trump’s sixth-best state in the 2016 presidential election, and it hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1992 (and that Democrat, Sen. Richard Shelby, switched parties in 1994 to become a Republican).

And yet, Moore’s candidacy has gone from troubled to radioactive as he has been rocked by very credible allegations of sexual improprieties with teenage girls several decades ago. The story is even more damaging to Moore because of some of the made-for-TV visuals that have accompanied the alleged victims’ stories, most notably Moore’s signature in a high school yearbook belonging to one of his accusers. As Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) said in retracting his endorsement of Moore, “grown men don’t typically sign high school girls’ yearbooks.”

Meanwhile, former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones (D) has run a competent campaign and has begun to use the latest developments to try to boost his standing among Republicans who might reconsider supporting Moore in the Dec. 12 special election. Polls, already close before the really bad stories about Moore began appearing about a week ago, seem to have tightened further, with Jones even leading in some. For instance, Politico ’s Alex Isenstadt reported on Wednesday that the National Republican Senatorial Committee — no friend of Moore’s even before the sexual misconduct stories broke, to be sure — has Moore down 51%-39% to Jones in its polling. However, we’re not sure how useful polls will be in this race: Anticipating turnout in a special election like this is very hard. What we do know is 1.) Last week’s elections and special elections conducted throughout the year have shown high levels of Democratic enthusiasm in both liberal and conservative jurisdictions; 2.) Jones is likely to have a big resource advantage in this race — he’s already outspent Moore 11-to-one on TV ads, according to Advertising Analytics — with national Republicans staying away from Moore; and 3.) Moore may have trouble preventing poor Republican turnout given his horribly damaged candidacy.

National Republicans, who have no use for Moore anyway and dread having him as part of their Senate caucus because of his extreme conservatism and go-it-alone attitude, have been issuing extraordinary statements about Moore, necessitated by the extraordinarily damaged Moore candidacy. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), the NRSC chairman and thus the man most responsible for preserving the GOP’s slim majority next year, said that if Moore is elected, the Senate should move to expel him. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said “I believe the women” on Monday when asked about Moore and his accusers, using a phrase that has become associated with the flood of women (and some men) who have come forward across many different industries in the wake of the fall of film executive Harvey Weinstein with very believable accusations of abhorrent sexual behavior by powerful men. Moore’s position seems to be eroding by the moment. As of this writing (Wednesday afternoon), even seemingly ironclad Moore allies like Sean Hannity of Fox News and Trump ally Steve Bannon of Breitbart were having second thoughts about backing him. It’s worth nothing that none of the aforementioned figures is an Alabama voter.

Republicans are considering various stunts to shake off Moore. One hypothetical option would be for Gov. Kay Ivey (R) to cancel or shift the timing of the special election in some way so as to replace Moore on the ballot or to have a brand new election. We’re not lawyers, so who knows if that would be possible, but some conservatives have thrown around the idea.  However, using a procedural trick to get rid of Moore doesn’t really seem like fair play, although we also can understand the impulse to resort to extraordinary means to block his potential election. Moreover, halting an election because of an increased likelihood that your party could lose a Senate seat seems akin to being in a banana republic. At present, Ivey has no plans to move the election. It’s also possible that state Republicans could effectively revoke Moore’s nomination, but even then he would remain on the ballot; if he won, it’s unclear whether the election would be null and void or whether, potentially, the second-place finisher (almost certainly Jones) would be the winner.

Another option is for the GOP to run a write-in campaign. The GOP wants Moore to leave the race, but even if he did (and there’s little indication he will), his name would remain on the ballot, and votes cast for him would not go to the write-in candidate (potentially Strange, though McConnell has also mentioned beleaguered Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose appointment to Trump’s Cabinet precipitated this special election). That is a possible avenue to victory for the Republicans, but the logistics are daunting. Yes, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) saved her career through a write-in bid after losing a 2010 primary. However, as our friend Michael Carey, a veteran Alaska reporter and observer, reminded us, the circumstances in Alabama are a lot different. For one thing, Murkowski announced her write-in bid 46 days before the November 2010 general election and her campaign apparatus from the primary was still intact when she launched, while the GOP Moore alternative would have less than a month and presumably would have to build a campaign from scratch or hastily reassemble Strange’s political team. Alaska also has less than one-sixth the population of Alabama, so it would be harder to get the word out about a write-in candidacy in the latter than it was in the former.

In other words, the GOP doesn’t seem to have many real options to supplant Moore — even if he drops out, his name would remain on the ballot and prove a hindrance to a write-in option.

Despite all of this, Moore could still win — to us, Jones is only a small favorite at this point, and there’s still a month to go in the race. Alabama after all is a very Republican state — President Trump won it by 28 percentage points last year — and many Alabamians will vote for any Republican over any Democrat. It is also worth noting that President Trump won last year despite the Access Hollywood tape and sexual assault allegations, but assuming that other politicians are blessed with the same Teflon as the president may not be the right way of approaching this. As noted earlier, Moore was already a weak candidate who only won by four points in his last election, a state Supreme Court race in 2012, and he has been kicked off the court twice for ignoring the law in favor of his own extreme social conservatism.

This race is beginning to remind us of the 2012 Missouri Senate race. That year, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) should have been an underdog in a red-trending state that Mitt Romney would win by nine points, but her preferred opponent, Rep. Todd Akin (R, MO-2) won the primary, and he almost immediately made an infamous gaffe: Answering an interview question about abortion, Akin said that the body of a woman who had suffered “a legitimate rape” had “ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” referring to a pregnancy. National Republicans recoiled in horror and asked him to leave the race, but Akin stood firm, and he completed the race as a political orphan. Despite some buzz that he might be closing the gap down the stretch, McCaskill outperformed the polls and won by about 16 points.

Alabama is a more Republican state than Missouri, but we can imagine Moore suffering a similar weak finish if he remains in the race. And while Akin’s comments were ridiculous and uninformed, the credible allegations against Moore are of course way worse than Akin’s words.

Perhaps Republicans find a way to maneuver out of this pickle, or Alabama voters are more disgusted by the idea of voting for a Democrat than they are of voting for a man facing multiple allegations of sexual assault against minors. But Moore’s implosion is so bad that we have to install Jones as a small favorite. If Jones were to win in a state Trump won by 28 points, it would be nearly the mirror opposite of Scott Brown’s (R) Obamacare-aided victory in a Massachusetts Senate special election in January 2010. Barack Obama had won the Bay State by 26 points in 2008.

A Republican loss in Alabama could open the door to a Democratic Senate next year. It would cut the GOP edge to 51-49, and Jones would not have to face the voters again until 2020.

We’ve noted throughout this cycle so far that the chances of a Democratic takeover in the Senate were almost beyond remote, for the simple fact that the map is so terrible for Democrats next year. They are defending 25 of the 33 seats being contested, including 10 in states that Donald Trump carried. Republicans are defending just eight, and only one in a Clinton state (Nevada), although Arizona, now an open seat, is a top Democratic pickup opportunity too. Still, even if Democrats held all their seats — and it is hard for the presidential party to beat a Senate incumbent from the other party in a midterm, although several Democratic incumbents, like McCaskill, should have very hard races — and won Arizona and Nevada, that would still get them to only a tied, 50-50 Senate, with Vice President Mike Pence breaking ties and keeping Republicans technically in the majority.

Well, a Jones victory in Alabama would turn that 50-50 to 51-49 Democratic, assuming a clean sweep for Democrats in all the states they currently hold and victories in Arizona and Nevada. We would not say such an outcome is likely, but an Alabama upset would at least open the door to the possibility of a Democratic Senate majority.

The potential for a Jones upset in blood red Alabama has us thinking about our ratings in the other six red state Republican Senate seats up for regular election next year (in other words, the ones besides Arizona and Nevada). We already have Texas, where Cruz is seeking a second term, as Likely Republican, a nod to Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s (D, TX-16) candidacy and the Lone Star State’s weakening but still- strong GOP affiliation (Trump won the state by a relatively modest nine points last year). We don’t see much potential for a Democratic upset in four of the other states, Mississippi, Nebraska, Utah, and Wyoming. But keep an eye on Tennessee, now an open seat thanks to two-term Sen. Bob Corker’s (R) retirement.

Alabama and Tennessee are somewhat similar, and we wrote back in September that we would use Jones’ performance in December as a way of gauging Democratic potential in the Volunteer State. It remains unclear what will happen in Alabama, but it seems reasonable to think that Jones will at the very least finish within 10 points of Moore. But perhaps more interesting than that is some Democratic bullishness on the prospects that popular former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D), who served from 2003-2011, could enter the race. Bredesen, a veteran politician who hasn’t been on the ballot in a while, might end up being a poor fit for the moment, like Democratic Senate candidates Evan Bayh (IN), Ted Strickland (OH), and Russ Feingold (WI) were last cycle, but at the very least, Bredesen would provide the party with a credible candidate. We’re moving the open Tennessee Senate seat from Safe Republican to Likely Republican, both as a nod to the potential Bredesen candidacy and also because in a poor national environment for Republicans, there is a small chance of an upset in an open seat.

The news is not all bad for Republicans. Since we’re moving Tennessee in part because of a potential candidacy, it’s only fair to move another race in anticipation of a likelier candidacy. According to Politico ’s Florida Playbook, it appears that Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL) is “increasingly likely” to run for Senate against veteran Sen. Bill Nelson (D). We’ve heard from several Democrats over the course of the last few months who are very concerned with the amount of money it will take to defend Nelson against Scott, who is so wealthy that he basically can spend as much as he wants in one of the nation’s most expensive media states. While Scott barely won in 2010 and 2014 — two good Republican years — his approval seems decent and he earned plaudits for his handling of Hurricane Irma: Positive natural disaster response can be a boon in an ensuing campaign.

Nelson is a proven campaigner, and the environment will likely be in his favor. But Scott, assuming he follows through on his telegraphed campaign, is a very formidable challenger, so we’re moving Florida from Leans Democratic to Toss-up. Florida is a must-hold for Democrats if they have any hope of winning back the Senate, even if they pull off the Alabama upset.

Meanwhile, we’ll surely have more to say about Alabama before Election Day. We’ll talk to you again after Thanksgiving.

Table 1: Crystal Ball Senate ratings changes

Kondik - Table 1 - November 16, 2017

Map 1: Crystal Ball Senate ratings

Kondik - Map 1 - November 16, 2017

Kyle Kondik is a Political Analyst at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Geoffrey Skelley is  the Associate Editor  at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

See Other Political Commentary by Kyle Kondik.

See Other Political Commentary by Geoffrey Skelley

See Other  Political Commentary

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