There is an understandable rush to judgment about the meaning of the Alabama Senate race on Tuesday. It raises so many questions – about both parties and the direction of the country.
Is this defeat of GOP standard-bearer Roy Moore as significant as the left believes or hopes it to be? Is Democrat Doug Jones’ victory – as shocking at the state level as Trump’s was at the national level – a harbinger of bad times ahead for the GOP? Does it represent the leading edge of a comeback by Democrats? And what does this say about Donald Trump?
Let’s slow down, take a step back, and put this thing in perspective. In this age of instant punditry, a longer view is in order.
Sure, this may be the start (or the early stages) of a Democratic comeback against a president with famously low approval ratings. We can hardly draw that conclusion based on this one race, but adding this to their unexpectedly substantial victory in the Virginia Governor’s race and the landslide win in the New Jersey gubernatorial contest has built an undeniable sense of momentum on the left.
But it is also true that the party which wins the presidency almost always loses seats in the next midterm elections, or in this case, special congressional and gubernatorial elections. It happened to Obama in 2009, when Virginia and New Jersey went for GOP Governors, and it is happening now to Trump and the GOP. What remains to be seen is whether the 468 House and Senate seats up for election in 2018 will continue the trend. It did for Democrats in 2010, when they were, as Barack Obama said, “shellacked.”
In the end, the outcome may well hinge on whether the GOP tax reform bill – likely soon to become law – has the promised effect on an economy already experiencing higher growth – over three percent in the last two quarters – and lower unemployment – more than two million jobs added this year.
The race in Alabama turned not on ideology, but on Roy Moore as Exhibit A of the issue of the year: sexual misconduct. There is little doubt that Moore would have won this election but for the nine, count ‘em, nine allegations of inappropriate conduct with teenagers which came pouring in after Moore won the GOP primary. Roy Moore was hardly a typical Republican candidate. He was opposed by both the Democrats and the entire Republican establishment. Despite multiple statewide victories, he has always underperformed in comparison with most GOP candidates in Alabama. Trump won the bright red state by 30 points. Judge Moore may just have exemplified the Peter Principle, a national race proving to be his level of incompetence.
So Republicans now hold 51 seats in the Senate instead of 52. But Doug Jones will not take office until after the landmark tax reform bill is signed and sealed (unless the GOP fumbles the ball near the goal line). And while the GOP would obviously prefer the extra vote when the calendar turns considering their already narrow 52-48 advantage, there are few major items on the legislative docket in 2018 outside of more attempts to fix the metastasizing Obamacare mess. And with next year’s elections sure to change the Senate alignment, the upper chamber will look quite different – one way or another – after the voters have gone to the polls in less than 11 months.
It could be that, in the end, tax reform will be to Republicans what Obamacare was to Democrats: the one big thing they were able to accomplish when handed full control of the federal government. But it could also be that successful results from the first restructuring of the nation’s tax laws in over three decades would – unlike Obamacare for the Dems – be enough for them to retain power.
But consider most of all the baggage Republicans have shed with Moore’s defeat. There will not be the promised and immediate ethics investigation into a newly elected senator. There will not be an opportunity for Democrats to smear the GOP as the party of pedophiles. There will not be an opportunity for the bloodthirsty left to tie Moore and Trump together in a nice neat two-fer package. Rest assured that, while the Steve Bannon wing of the GOP is disappointed, the bulk of Republican officeholders, candidates, and professionals are breathing a sigh of relief at Moore’s defeat.
It is also important to note that, with no other races in play this month, Democrats were able to focus like a laser beam on this one, pouring in the lion’s share of the more than $40 million spent in this campaign. Much of it was from out of state, as Democrats succeeded in nationalizing this race, unlike the recent special House election for a swing seat in Georgia won by a Republican. Next year, with 33 Senate seats in play, it is unlikely they will be able to target any Senate race as heavily as they did this race in Alabama.
Of those 33 seats in play in 2018, the Democrats must defend 23 of them, which makes wresting control of the upper chamber a herculean task for a party at least as unpopular as the GOP. The Dems will need to flip 24 seats to seize control of the House. This is a daunting challenge for a party still shellshocked by their stunning defeat in 2016, and which has yet to regain its ideological bearings. But a much larger turnover happened as recently as 2010, when Republicans flipped a whopping 63 House seats, so the task for Democrats is likely not as difficult in the House as in the Senate. And the lower chamber is where the real action is likely to be, for it is almost certain that if the Democrats do take control of the House, one of their first acts will be to introduce, and approve, articles of impeachment against President Trump.
The many pundits who will magnify the significance of the Alabama race continue to pound on Trump’s low approval numbers, again failing to either take a longer view or to acknowledge a critical fact: on the day Trump was elected President, his approval stood at 36%. And yet he won a decisive victory in the electoral college. It now stands at 37%. Perhaps the chattering class should think one level below the surface and understand what Trump’s election demonstrated: disapproval does not automatically imply lack of support, especially with a President who provokes many to disapprove of his behavior while supporting his agenda.
Mitch McConnell and his establishment colleagues believe they have dodged a bullet with Moore’s defeat, but they still view Trump as some sort of alien force. And the left smells blood in the water. So buckle your seatbelts. The post-2016 political drama is just getting started.