Doug Jones became the first Democrat to be elected to the U.S. Senate from Alabama in 25 years Tuesday night when he beat Republican Roy Moore, initially presumed to be the frontrunner in the race, by a margin of 20,715 votes.
Jones’s campaign party morphed from hopeful to ecstatic in a matter of moments when vote returns suddenly turned in his favor and then the race was called on his behalf by news outlets shortly before 10 p.m.
“Folks, I gotta tell you. I think that I have been waiting all my life and now I just don’t know what the hell to say,” Jones told jubilant supporters gathered at the Sheraton in Birmingham.
“At the end of the day, this entire race has been about dignity and respect. This campaign, this campaign has been about the rule of law,” he told the crowd.
It also was about winning over voters and getting them to the polls. Jones said in his speech that his campaign volunteers made 1.2 million phone calls and knocked on about 300,000 doors in the days and weeks before the election.
The scene at Moore’s party in Montgomery was much different. There, the night started off upbeat as results showed their candidate with a lead as high as 9 percentage points. But as later returns came in from heavily Democratic areas such as Jefferson County, supporters nervously watched their smartphones, seeing Moore’s lead slowly drift away.
And when the room’s video screen showed Jones taking over the lead, the music changed from jazz saxophone to old church hymns.
Moore made an appearance at about 10:40 p.m., refusing to concede the race with the margin for Jones so slim. He finished his brief remarks by telling supporters, “Let’s all go home and sleep on this.”
With 100 percent of the votes counted, according to Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, Jones won the race 49.92 percent to Moore’s 48.38 percent. The rest were write-in votes.
In a late-night press conference, Merrill said the vote would be certified between Dec. 26 and Jan. 3. He said that with all the absentee votes counted, the likelihood that votes from Alabama residents living abroad, such as military voters, and provisional votes were unlikely to tip the scale enough to set off an automatic recount provision under state law. Automatic recounts are called if candidates are separated by no more than .5 percent of the vote.
Merrill said Moore could request a recount at his own expense.
Another factor in the race is the unusually large number of write-in ballots cast, which Merrill called “one of the highest margins that’s ever been achieved in a competitive race.”
Write-in votes accounted for 1.69 percent of those cast in the race, for a total of 22,780 votes. That’s slightly more than Jones’s margin of victory. Those votes won’t be counted unless, on the day of certification, the number totals more than the difference between the votes for each candidate.
The turnout was higher than expected, topping 40 percent, according to the secretary of state’s web site, but did not set a record.
Turnout was spurred not just by the candidates’ platforms, but by controversies that attended them. The race was marked by allegations from the left that Moore had inappropriate sexual contact with teen girls when he was in his 30s. From the right, Jones was battered with allegations that he supported late-term abortions.
If that wasn’t enough to get the national media’s attention, fold in that the Senate seat up for grabs was a crucial one for the Republicans, as well as for Democrats. Jones’s victory left the Senate with a slender 51-49 Republican majority as the GOP pushes for votes on taxes, the budget and health-care, among other important issues.
Ramifications from the race also could resonate into the 2018 midterm elections, said UAB communications professor Larry Powell.
“President Trump got a double whammy in Alabama. He supported (Luther) Strange (in the GOP primary) and Moore, and both lost. Now the Democrats have a framework for going after him for the midterms.
“That is not good news for the president. It might make other Republican candidates hesitate to welcome his support. And maybe his brand of anti-establishment (politics) will not do as well as they hope in the future,” Powell said.
Can the Dems Keep It Together?
The question for the Democratic Party is whether it can hold together the coalition that elected Jones and keep up the get-out-the-vote message his campaign blasted throughout the state the last few weeks of the campaign.
Former U.S. Sen Donald Stewart, the last Alabama Democrat to win a special election for a Senate seat, in 1978, said it could happen.
“This election was an anomaly, but if (Jones’) group can stay together, it possibly could keep building its base,” Stewart said. “Then we need to get some good candidates for the (2018) gubernatorial race. That could very possibly energize the state and turn things around in our lifetime. That’s something I didn’t think I would ever see.”
Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox, a Democrat, also believes he sees a rebuilding of the party structure in Alabama.
“Doug Jones’s candidacy grew out of organic passion. I’m encouraged that passion won’t die tonight,” Maddox told WVTM-TV. “There’s something brighter ahead for the Democratic Party. A new day is coming in Alabama. Jones succeeded in building up a huge majority in Jefferson (County) and other large urban cities to overcome Moore’s expected strength in the rural areas.”
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, who took office last month in a campaign many compare to Jones’s approach, said the Jones campaign did what it needed to do when it needed to do it.
“For a special election, Doug did the right things to get to the point of a possible win,” Woodfin said. “This is huge, with the entire world watching.”
Powell agreed that Jones’s victory was meaningful, but he called it “an anomaly.”
“I don’t know if he could hold the seat in a future election. If Moore had won, it wouldn’t change things in Alabama much, it’d be business as usual,” Powell said.
Scott Beason, a conservative talk radio show host and former Republican state senator from Shelby County, agreed that Jones’s victory can be chalked up to his grass-roots campaign approach.
“They had a tremendous organization and made sure urban residents, college students, African Americans and suburban women turned out,” he said in an interview on WVTM.
But he listed one other factor: “The Republican National Party fragmented and dropped the ball for us,” he said.
Sue Bell Cobb, who replaced Moore as Alabama’s chief justice and who has said she’ll run for governor on the Democratic ticket next year, said the vote went beyond party.
She said Jones’s victory is a result of Alabama residents becoming engaged.
“They said ‘yes’ to integrity and qualifications,” Cobb said. “Doug Jones was the right person at the right time. Alabamians stood up and said character and integrity matter.”
Cobb, who was elected as Alabama’s chief justice in 2006, previously was the last Democrat elected statewide. She said she has many Republican friends who told her they would be voting for Jones. “This was more than a party vote; integrity became the most important issue in this race,” she said.
Corky Strickland, dean of Cumberland Law School, Samford Univerity, where Jones earned his law degree, has a perspective that is both personal and political.
“I’ve known Doug Jones as a hard-working, quality person for many years. He really was the ideal candidate for this moment, and was elected because in some respects it was … a perfect storm of events,” he said.
But, he said, Jones conveyed a message of unity and bringing people together on issues important to them, like God, health care, education, and more.
Strickland said knowing Jones directly makes him believe the message of the candidate about bringing people together is a real message, not just political rhetoric.
Editor’s Note: This story has been corrected to reflect that candidate Doug Jones said: “Folks, I gotta tell you. I think that I have been waiting all my life and now I just don’t know what the hell to say.” An earlier version of the story mistakenly attributed the quote to Moore.