It’s almost understandable that the GOP considers a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama something of a birthright. For a generation, Republicans have held the Senate seats since Richard Shelby switched parties in 1994 and Howell Heflin retired in 1997.
But municipal elections in Alabama’s largest city might signal a sea change for voters in the yellowhammer state. Progressive candidate Randall Woodfin–backed by national progressive parties like the Working Families Party and by the legacy organization of Bernie Sanders’ failed presidential bid, Our Revolution–defeated two-term incumbent William Bell in a city-wide runoff election, carrying 58 percent of the vote to Bell’s 41 percent.
The victory is “good for the progressive wing of the party because it shows that they’re voting,” Birmingham-Southern College political science professor Vince Gawronski told the Huffington Post shortly after the election.
Woodfin’s win is yet another high point for progressives at the local level, and that could be good news for Alabama’s Democratic Senate nominee Doug Jones, who faces former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore in a special election on Dec. 12 after Jeff Sessions vacated his seat in order to become Attorney General in Donald Trump’s administration.
Moore was removed from office twice as the state’s top judge, first in 2003 after he flouted a federal court’s ruling that ordered him to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments that he had personally commissioned to be erected in the Alabama Judicial Building. Moore then ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2006 and 2010, losing in the primaries. He even explored a presidential bid in 2012. However, he was re-elected as the chief justice of the State Supreme Court in 2013. But Moore ran afoul of the Alabama Court of the Judiciary yet again, this time three years later when he directed probate judges to continue enforcing Alabama’s ban on same-sex marriage, despite a United States Supreme Court ruling that the ban was unconstitutional. As a result, Moore was suspended without pay for the remainder of his time on the bench. He appealed the ruling, but it was upheld upon review by the Alabama Supreme Court.
By contrast, Doug Jones is a centrist Democrat whose most notable work has been as a federal prosecutor, pursuing (and gaining) convictions over the final two Ku Klux Klan members involved in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, which killed four little girls–Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair–and injured 22 other people in 1963. Jones secured the convictions of Thomas Edwin Blanton, Jr., and Bobby Frank Cherry for that despicable act nearly 40 years after the fact. While Cherry died in prison, Blanton came up for parole in 2016. Jones testified against Blanton at his parole hearing, and his motion for early release was denied.
The men are stark contrasts. Moore is the twice-disgraced right-wing showman, appearing onstage prior to the GOP primary in the special election wearing a too-small cowboy hat and brandishing a tiny revolver (We leave any phallic interpretations completely to the imagination of the reader). Jones is the upright, crusading attorney, whose calling card has been justice. In any normal state, in any normal year, Moore would be an afterthought–the crazy uncle on the porch, railing at the rain.
But this is a post-Donald Trump election, and it’s Alabama, a state that has nearly always voted against its own best interests, such as former “Luv Guv” Robert Bentley deciding that the state would not accept an expanded Medicaid following the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which would have helped the poorest among the state’s citizens. It remains to be seen whether Birmingham’s acceptance of a progressive Democrat means that Jones has a chance against Moore.
But there are lessons to be learned from the municipal elections. Woodfin had national funding, but he also had clearly articulated and ambitious plans for Birmingham. And he also had a team of volunteers who pounded the pavement, worked phones, and worked as hard as possible to get voters to turn out in his favor. Looking at the down-ballot races, that kind of nose-to-the-grindstone campaigning paid off for multiple candidates.
Take Darrell O’Quinn, who defeated District 5 city council member (and council president) Jonathan Austin. O’Quinn’s campaign lacked the funds and name recognition of Austin, but O’Quinn–and his wife, Kristina–worked ceaselessly in District 5. They walked the neighborhoods, listened to voters, and attended every meeting of the citizens Darrell sought to represent.
That kind of grass-roots work ethic ousted Austin, who had served as District 5 council representative since 2008 and as president since 2013. And just like the special election for U.S. Senate, every vote was precious. O’Quinn won by only 159 votes.
In order for Jones to defeat Moore, he’ll have to apply the same kind of work ethic O’Quinn and Woodfin did. Jones started the race polling six points behind the Republican candidate, though recent polls place Jones’ numbers closer than that. If the Democrat can take Jeff Sessions’ vacated Senate seat, it won’t necessarily be the start of a blue wave in this deeply red state. At best, it might turn into a purple marsh.
“Woodfin won because he got out the younger vote. He pounded the pavement and knocked on doors,” Gawronski said. “With Woodfin winning, he proved that Birmingham is a much more forward and cosmopolitan place.”
Alabama voters from the center-right all the way to the left are hoping that Doug Jones can prove that same thing on a statewide scale.