Democrat victory in Alabama is a blow for Donald Trump but Democrats can’t get carried away

Doug Jones’s win over scandal-hit Roy Moore is a historic moment born of extraordinary circumstances.

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A Democrat was elected to statewide office in Alabama for the first time in a decade last night, in a blow to Donald Trump and his former chief strategist Steve Bannon. 

The nail-biting race saw Democrat Doug Jones start with strong early numbers as the results began to come in, before slipping behind for most of the evening as the votes from rural counties, dominated by white male evangelical voters, poured in. It was only as the night drew to a close that he began to return from a seemingly insurmountable distance, to beat the Republican Roy Moore.

As the numbers came in, the result seemed like nothing short of a miracle.

Alabama is one of the most conservative states in the country. In the previous senate election, Republicans won 97 percent of the vote. Moore was strongly endorsed by the sitting president. The hope line for many Democrats is now therefore that a Trump endorsement seems a political kiss of death.

It's not that simple. This race was cartoonish from the start. Moore turned up to the polling booth to vote on a horse. Not a pale horse – nor even a particularly happy horse – but his ridiculous chutzpah was stunning. This race was Moore's to lose, and even as Fox News called the contest for his opponent his campaign was exhorting his supporters to “pray”. He has still, at time of writing, not admitted defeat.

He needed prayers. This election was always obviously going to be a special case. Moore, a favourite of alt-right maven and Trump presidential campaign mastermind Steve Bannon, captured national headlines after allegations surfaced against him surrounding sexual misconduct with teenage girls as young as 14. Moore has denied the claims.

Republican voters in Alabama were thus faced with an unenviable choice: vote for a candidate facing deeply disturbing allegations of sexual misconduct, or – heaven forbid – for a Democrat. In the end, against all expectation, they voted for the Democrat. However, many voters just stayed at home.

Despite the shock of Alabama turning away from the Republicans, Democrats cannot celebrate too wildly. The fact that even after the allegations against Moore surfaced, the race remained contentious enough to provide a close finish, reflects how tribal politics is in this state and across the US.

But this is certainly a blow for Trump, who doubled down and gave Moore his full-throated support for the second time in December despite the many accusations against him.

On Tuesday afternoon, Trump repeated his endorsement on Twitter, saying – ludicrously – that Jones, a career prosecutor who jailed the Ku Klux Klan members responsible for a 1963 church bombing that killed four young girls, was “weak on crime”.

“Jones is a Pelosi/Schumer Puppet. Roy Moore will always vote with us,” Trump said, referring to the Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, minority leaders of the House and Senate.

Moore, a disgraced far-right judge who has said that homosexual behaviour should be illegal, has strongly denied historical allegations that he assaulted Leigh Corfman when she was 14. But his campaign has had little to say about other accusations of sexual impropriety, including from women who were also in high school at the time of the alleged behaviour.

In addition, Moore – who was well into his 30s at the time, and serving in a position of responsibility as a district attorney – even signed the school yearbooks of some girls and was reportedly banned from a local shopping mall in the 1970s for bothering teenagers. A total of eight women have come forward with accusations of sexual misconduct against him.

Given all that, it is frankly extraordinary that this race was competitive at all. The Trump effect – the mass delusion that the US seems to have been suffering from since around the middle of 2015 – seems to have disrupted right-wing morality so much that the sort of allegations that would have previously sunk candidates were just ignored. 

Nonetheless, Jones's achievement should not be underestimated. The deck was stacked against him. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down some of the key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which aimed to protect black voters from institutional disenfranchisement by states like Alabama.

At the time, chief justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion of the court that “disparities in voter registration and turnout due to race were erased” over the last 40 years, and thus the act was no longer needed.

In a chillingly prescient dissenting opinion, associate justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote that “the sad irony of today’s decision lies in [the court's] utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective.” She was proved utterly right in her understanding of the racial topography of the American south. The Alabama race saw multiple accounts of the kind of targeted voter suppression, especially in black districts, that the VRA could have at least partly prevented.

In majority-black Montgomery County, for example, a contributor to the Daily Beast reported that police were checking people in line to vote for outstanding arrest warrants – an illegal act of voter suppression – and this was just one of numerous such reports. The federal oversight that would have counteracted such behaviour was dismantled by the court's 2013 decision.

Nonetheless, once the allegations against Moore surfaced, this election became a win-win for Democrats. Winning brought them a step closer to retaking the Senate in the midterm elections in 2018. If they had lost, the true face of the new Republican party would have been no longer arguable.

But that means it would be a mistake for Democrats to get too drunk on this victory. It turns out that the way for a Democrat to win in Alabama is to run against a someone facing multiple allegations of sexual misconduct with young women. The Democrats cannot, and should not, count on such a stroke of political luck in any of the upcoming 2018 midterm elections. It's not exactly a teachable moment. But what an extraordinary moment in history it was nonetheless.

Nicky Woolf was the launch editor for New Statesman America and has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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