Under normal circumstances, Sen. Cory Gardner would be a clear favorite for re-election.
Personable and politically astute, the Colorado Republican ran a terrific campaign in 2014 to oust Democratic incumbent Mark Udall. But President Donald Trump has energized partisan Democrats and alienated suburban swing voters nationally, and that has made Gardner the most vulnerable GOP senator up for re-election in 2020.
Still, it would be unwise for Democrats to count their Colorado chickens before they’ve hatched. Gardner has an uphill fight, but it’s not an impossible one.
Racking up wins
Gardner was just 30 years old when he was appointed to the Colorado state House in 2005. He won a full term the next year and was re-elected in 2008.
In 2010, he challenged and defeated Democratic Rep. Betsy Markey. After initially announcing in May 2013 that he wouldn’t run for the Senate, Gardner reversed himself the following year in late February.
National Republicans, who never stopped recruiting him for the Senate, were overjoyed, while Democrats realized that Udall had a serious fight on his hands.
Gardner opened his general election campaign with a renewable energy/pro-environment television ad that showed he would run from the center and woo suburban voters.
It was a savvy move and a smart strategy, given the likelihood that Democrats would portray him as a conservative ideologue.
The challenger was simply more likable than Udall, who didn’t help himself by obsessively focusing on reproductive rights at the same time that Gardner was stressing economic and energy themes.
Gardner won narrowly, 48 percent to 46 percent, a margin of just under 40,000 votes out of more than 2 million cast.
While he ran a strong race, Gardner definitely benefited by running during Barack Obama’s second midterm election. Without the dynamic that produced a nine-seat Republican Senate gain nationally, he may well have fallen short in his Senate bid.
The state of the state’s politics
Though Republican presidential nominees have carried Colorado in 10 of the last 15 elections, the state has been generally competitive for years. More recently, however, it has been sliding away from the GOP.
Last year, Democrats retained the state’s open governorship, took over the offices of attorney general, state treasurer and secretary of state, and gained a new congressional seat. The party also flipped the state Senate.
Democrats now control the state House with 41 seats to 24 seats for the GOP, and the Senate more narrowly, 19-16.
But state election results tell a slightly more complicated story.
Donald Trump received a smaller percentage of the vote in 2016 (43.3 percent) than Mitt Romney did in 2012 (46.1 percent) or John McCain in 2008 (44.7 percent), but Trump’s losing margin (4.9 points) was actually less than Romney’s (5.4 points) or McCain’s (9 points).
And while Democrats won an at-large University of Colorado regent seat last fall, Republicans held the other at-large regent seat in 2016 at the same time Trump was losing the state.
University board of regents or board of governors races often reflect a state’s partisan fundamentals, combined with the particular election cycle’s partisan dynamics.
Still, Democrats have won 10 of the last dozen gubernatorial elections, a remarkable feat that suggests something more than mere chance.
Interestingly, the state’s senior senator, Democrat Michael Bennet, has not exactly blown away his Republican opponents, both of whom were regarded as relatively weak.
Bennet, who was appointed to the seat in 2009, squeezed by Ken Buck 48.1 percent to 46.4 percent in 2010, which probably reflects the strong anti-Obama midterm message more than the two candidates’ quality or the state’s underlying partisanship.
Six years later, Bennet beat Republican Darryl Glenn, then an El Paso county commissioner, 50 percent to 44.3 percent.
Both parties seem to have relatively low ceilings and high floors in statewide races, which means a tight Senate race next year is very possible.
A couple of recognizable Democrats are already in the race. Andrew Romanoff is a former speaker of the Colorado House who lost a 2010 Senate primary to Bennet and a 2014 challenge to Republican Rep. Mike Coffman. (Coffman lost re-election by a surprisingly large margin last year in a suburban swing district.)
Mike Johnston is a former Colorado state senator who finished a credible third (with almost a quarter of the vote) in last year’s Democratic primary for governor.
Other prominent Democrats, including Rep. Ed Perlmutter, continue to be mentioned as possible candidates, though one of them, former Colorado House Speaker Crisanta Duran, has decided to run for the House instead.
Democrats haven’t yet given up on their hope that former Gov. John Hickenlooper, who announced a presidential bid recently, will eventually forgo his White House ambitions and instead enter the Senate race.
Gardner is lucky his seat is up next year instead of 2018.
It’s generally easier for an incumbent to swim against the tide in a presidential year than during a midterm election, when voters use their House and Senate votes to make a statement about a president who is not on the ballot.
Next year, voters who dislike Trump but generally view Gardner favorably have separate votes to cast, giving the Republican senator a better opportunity to attract ticket-splitters.
Nevertheless, Trump will be a significant liability for Gardner, since a vote for the incumbent is one for continued GOP control of the Senate and inevitably a vote in support of the president.
Gardner, after all, chaired the National Republican Senatorial Committee last cycle (making him a member of the party’s Senate leadership), and he generally has been a loyal soldier in Trump’s Senate army.
He will have to depend on his campaign skills and, possibly, some Democratic division to hold his seat next year. It will be a difficult challenge with Trump at the top of the ballot.
Of course, Democrats Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana squeaked out even more difficult victories last year, so Gardner at least has a roadmap to follow.
Note: An almost identical version of this column first appeared in Roll Call on March 5, 2019.
In my last column, I raised three questions Democrats need to answer about the kind of nominee they want in 2020. Do they want an insurgent outsider, do they need someone with experience and must they have a woman and/or African-American on the ticket? In this column, I look at three other questions Democrats need to address.
Does likability matter?
One person’s idea of “likable” undoubtedly is very different from another’s, so it’s wise to be cautious when trying to generalize about likability in politics.
I have a problem with people who are arrogant and smug, while I tend to prefer those who are personable, down to earth, funny and even-keeled.
Personally, I’ve found Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to be intense and angry, two traits I don’t associate with likability. (Yes, I know. He’s passionate because he wants to save the country.)
The same goes for Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown. Both men strike me as gruff, in part because they don’t smile much.
Of course, they may come across much differently when they are with friends and family and not discussing politics.
In my view, Elizabeth Warren comes across like a schoolmarm. Again, not someone I’d want to have a beer with — in spite of her “Hold on a sec, I’m gonna get me a beer” comment.
I haven’t seen that much of New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, but he seems more intense, less likable.
On the other hand, Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York seem likable to me — easy to talk to, down to earth, personable and relaxed.
I’d put former Vice President Joe Biden, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and California Sen. Kamala Harris into the same category.
But those are just my views.
Each reader will have his or her own opinions. And many Democrats will focus on ideology, not likability.
Many will find candidates they agree with as being likable, and those they don’t agree with as unlikable.
Still, it’s hard to deny that politicians like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan benefited from their personable style and appeal.
Does the Democratic nominee need to out-Trump Trump?
President Donald Trump is going to run a brutal re-election campaign. He’ll attack again and again, belittling and besmirching his opponent.
Not everyone will be able to stand up to Trump’s attacks, or peel off some Trump voters, thereby changing the election’s equation.
If Democrats want someone who can bring back swing voters and white working-class voters, they’ll have options.
Biden certainly has shown strength in the past with blue-collar voters.
Hickenlooper, a businessman-turned-politician, might appeal to some upscale, suburban swing voters.
But if Democrats are looking to someone with a message and style that could give particular trouble to Trump, the obvious answer could be Brown.
The Ohio senator is an aggressive campaigner, to put the kindest spin on his reputation.
His position on trade and his emphasis on economic fairness has made him a favorite of organized labor and working-class voters who distrust corporate America.
His economic populism would undoubtedly appeal to some Trump voters, and he’d certainly have a chance of carrying Ohio in the general election.
Trump won 52.1 percent of the vote in the Buckeye State in 2016, with a victory margin of 8.6 points. Brown received 53.4 percent of the vote last year, winning re-election by 6.8 points.
But Brown has his liabilities, of course. Would women and non-whites get excited about him? And would suburbanites find his populism and style appealing?
Turn to the left or to the center?
For many Democrats and those in the media, the question of electability invariably leads to another: Does the party need to move to the center to attract swing voters, moderates and suburbanites, or does the party need to energize core party constituencies, thereby getting enthusiastic support from progressives, blacks, Hispanics and younger voters?
Each time I’ve been asked this question over the years, I’ve given the same answer: “Yes.”
Both parties need party loyalists and swing voters, ideologues and pragmatists.
Even against a polarizing incumbent Republican president with limited appeal, the 2020 Democratic nominee may need to outperform Hillary Clinton among progressives, minority voters and white suburban swing voters to win the White House.
Of course, appealing to very disparate elements of one party isn’t easy to do.
Nominate someone too far to the left in order to energize progressives, and that candidate risks losing those suburban voters who were so important to the party in 2018.
Pick a nominee regarded as measured and moderate, a true pragmatist, and that person could perform well in the suburbs but lose enthusiasm among progressive and younger voters, who are demanding change and a new agenda.
There is a way to bridge this gap, of course.
Bill Clinton already did it.
But it requires a skilled politician who can show empathy, pragmatism, a commitment to progressive principles and an openness to new ideas and solutions, all at the same time.
Can Harris do that? Klobuchar? Biden? Others?
As Democratic activists and voters select their favorites, they will be looking at all these and other questions.
But not all their answers will be of equal value.
Some Democrats may prefer a fresh face but will end up supporting Biden, making their decision on other considerations.
Or, they may prefer a progressive who plays to the base, yet opt to vote for Klobuchar or Harris, again for other reasons.
So the key question is not necessarily who Democratic voters like now, but what characteristics and qualities they will be looking for in February and March of 2020 — and how they prioritize their many preferences.
For some, the most important question may be a very simple one: Who is most likely to defeat Donald Trump?
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on January 31, 2019.
Democrats have a hoard of hopefuls aiming for their party’s 2020 nomination, so what qualities and characteristics are Democratic primary voters and caucus attendees likely to value?
Electability is certainly a factor, but what makes a potential nominee electable?
I’ll save the all-important ideology question — does the party need to move to the center to attract swing voters or move left to energize core constituencies? — until my next column, but there are plenty of other questions that Democratic voters must address over the next 12 to 15 months.
Here are a few:
Can a candidate be ‘new’ more than once?
When Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders entered the 2016 race on April 30, 2015, he wasn’t taken very seriously by political handicappers. He seemed too far left, couldn’t match Hillary Clinton’s fundraising machine, wasn’t even a Democrat and appeared too disheveled for this media age.
But Sanders caught on as an “authentic,” quirky, progressive alternative to the “establishment” Clinton. He was passionate and sincere, a fresh voice with principled ideas.
Is Sanders still the candidate of change, new ideas and authenticity, or did his magic potion have a 2016 expiration date?
Can he really compete with other, newer, younger candidates — like New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and former San Antonio Mayor/former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro — who will attempt to carry the mantle of change, energy, progressivism and authenticity?
Count me as skeptical that it’s now possible to be “new” more than once.
Of course, in the past, some unsuccessful presidential hopefuls proved resilient.
Adlai Stevenson was the Democratic nominee in 1956 after losing decisively in 1952. Republican Thomas E. Dewey lost to Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 but was nominated again four years later — and lost to Harry Truman. And Richard Nixon lost in 1960 but won the GOP nomination and the presidency eight years later.
But those were different times. Barack Obama never could have been nominated back then. Nor could Donald Trump.
We live in impatient times. Candidates don’t want to wait their turn, and the party establishment has withered.
Fundraising has changed, as has media coverage. That’s made charisma and oratory more important than preparation for office, longevity and maturity.
I expect there will be a new “Bernie Sanders” this cycle, but it’s unlikely to be Bernie Sanders.
I’m even skeptical about Joe Biden’s chances, even though he starts at or near the top in most polls, and even though I believe he would have won the White House had he been the 2016 Democratic nominee.
Selecting Biden as the party’s nominee may seem too much like going backward instead of marching into the future to Democratic voters.
Must the ticket include a woman? An African-American?
The eventual Democratic nominee will need to roll up big margins among women and non-whites, two groups that make up the backbone of the party.
Clinton carried women 54 percent to 41 percent and non-whites 74 percent to 21 percent in 2016, but two years later, Democratic House candidates carried both groups by even wider margins — winning women 59 percent to 40 percent and non-whites 76 percent to 22 percent.
Given Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s successes battling Trump, the victories by female candidates in 2018 and the infusion of energy provided by progressives of late, I simply can’t imagine a Democratic ticket without a non-white or a woman.
Both groups are crucial in offsetting the GOP’s advantage with men and whites.
The more important question is whether the party needs both a person of color and a woman on the ticket. I start off thinking the answer is “probably.”
A party that stands for diversity and inclusiveness must prove its commitment when putting together a national ticket.
This certainly doesn’t mean that a white man can’t be nominated for president or vice president by the Democrats — or win the White House.
Biden, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, O’Rourke and others have obvious assets in a crowded contest. But female and minority voters will have such a large role in selecting a presidential nominee that they may well prefer to nominate someone who looks like them.
And a ticket with a woman and/or an African American could help turnout among those crucial groups. Sen. Kamala Harris, who is black, Indian-American and a woman, checks a number of boxes.
Gillibrand, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar must also be in the conversation as appealing to women, just as Booker will have appeal to black Democrats.
Is experience an asset or a liability?
Obama jumped into the 2008 presidential contest on Feb. 10, 2007, about two years after he became a senator.
Trump never held elective office (or even a significant appointed post) when he won the White House. He defeated a woman who had been first lady, senator and secretary of State, and who was making her second run for president.
Does experience matter at all to Democratic voters? Or do they care only about speaking ability, charisma, newness and enthusiasm?
Is having served three terms in the House and a few years on the El Paso City Council enough (O’Rourke)? How about serving as mayor of South Bend, Indiana (Pete Buttigieg)? Is a couple of years in the Senate enough if you were previously attorney general of California (Harris)?
Newer contenders have shorter voting records, or none at all. Some have had little or no connection with Washington or Congress.
Is that what Democrats are looking for, or after Trump do they want someone who knows the ins and outs of legislation and D.C.?
If experience is still an electoral asset, Biden, Brown, former two-term Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and even Sanders have an important credential.
But if it isn’t an asset, other hopefuls may be better positioned.
These three questions are only the tip of the iceberg as we try to answer the question “What matters to Democrats as they put together a national ticket?”
In my next column, I’ll look at some other considerations, including ideological positioning.
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on January 29, 2019.
Even Donald Trump knows he is in a disturbingly deep political hole.
That’s why he went on television Saturday to offer his version of a “compromise” to Democrats. He is trying to blame House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her party for the partial government shutdown and to paint them as intransigent and extreme.
But after decades in the public spotlight — and two years in the White House — the president has his own well-earned reputation. Americans either love him or hate him.
His job approval has been poor for months, usually sitting somewhere between the upper 30s and the mid-40s.
Still, has the Trump-Pelosi standoff damaged the president badly? Count me as skeptical, even though polling consistently shows most Americans are not clamoring for a wall and hold the president responsible for the shutdown.
On “Meet the Press” Sunday, moderator Chuck Todd, who is also NBC News’ political director, asserted that the president is suffering politically. “The government shutdown is now in its 30th day. And the spread between Mr. Trump’s approval and disapproval ratings has grown noticeably since the start of this shutdown. He went from 10 points underwater to 15, according to FiveThirtyEight.com’s polling average,” Todd said.
In fact, looking at the change in the margin between Trump’s job approval and his disapproval exaggerates any alleged “change” in public opinion.
That 5-point change probably reflects a drop of 2.5 points in Trump’s favorable rating and an increase of 2.5 points in his disapproval.
Given the usual difficulties of polling these days and polls’ statistical margin of error, there is little reason to believe that Trump’s standing has eroded dramatically.
A small dip? Possibly. A significant downturn? Not yet.
As Jeffrey M. Jones of Gallup wrote a week ago following a Jan. 2-10 Gallup poll, “Trump’s rating has been little affected by the shutdown.”
Gallup showed Trump’s job approval at 37 percent, down 2 points from his approval before Christmas.
Gallup found what you would expect — virtually no change in Trump’s job ratings among Republicans and Democrats, but a measurable drop among independents.
Traditionally, independents are less engaged in politics, so their opinions tend to move around much more than partisans.
Economist/YouGov polling from late November 2018 to mid-January 2019 also showed little or no movement in the president’s job ratings, ranging from 43-46 percent approval over that period of time.
Of course, this is but a single poll, and other surveys, including for CNN and NPR/PBS/Marist, suggest at least some movement.
So, this is one of those cases where you can find data to support whatever view you hold. But given the country’s polarization, it’s difficult to believe the shutdown is having a substantial impact on the president’s job approval numbers.
The wall and Trump have become one, both for supporters of the president and for opponents.
As Gallup’s Frank Newport wrote recently, “[Trump] is very unlikely to lose support for the wall among his base, regardless of what he does. It also follows that Trump is unlikely to gain support for his wall among those not in his base.”
But while the shutdown has not yet redrawn the political battle lines or remade party coalitions, it is not without risk for Trump.
The standoff could further erode the president’s already poor standing among independents, and while that’s not likely to move the needle much, Trump can’t afford to lose any support given his very narrow victory in 2016 and the disastrous Republican midterm House losses.
The deadlock over the wall and the shutdown also make it impossible for Trump to talk about other issues, like the economy, where he has obvious accomplishments and should have an advantage.
Even more dangerous for Republicans, the standoff could eventually damage the economy.
As the New York Times reported last week, “The revised estimates from the Council of Economic Advisers show that the shutdown, now in its fourth week, is beginning to have real economic consequences. The analysis, and other projections from outside the White House, suggests that the shutdown has already weighed significantly on growth and could ultimately push the United States economy into a contraction.”
Slower growth, whether because of eroding consumer confidence or increased nervousness in the business community, could have a much greater impact on Trump’s ratings than the shutdown.
The same goes for the results of the special counsel investigation of Robert S. Mueller III, of course.
The president’s “base” strategy of whipping up support among his acolytes and relying entirely on the Republican Congress has caused him to paint himself into a corner.
Now, unable to crush Pelosi through sheer force of will, the president may feel he must do something dramatic to reset his presidency. The question is whether that step would stiffen the resolve of opponents, rattle his core supporters or fundamentally improve his positioning.
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on January 22, 2019.
If Sen. Susan Collins runs for a fifth term, she ought to expect a very different race than in the past. Forget coasting to victory, no matter the opponent or even the nature of the election cycle.
Collins will start off as vulnerable — a top Democratic target in a state carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016.
The Maine Republican’s great strength over the years has been her moderation and thoughtfulness. She mulls over issues extensively, almost always looking for middle ground.
She supports abortion rights and LGBT issues, and she has broken with her party on topics ranging from the environment to taxes to the Affordable Care Act.
But Collins’ vote to confirm Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court gives Democrats an opportunity to retire her next year — as does the fact that her contest could determine which party controls the Senate.
A remarkable politician
Collins has had an extensive career of public service. She has also proven to be a savvy campaigner and able vote-getter, and she fits the mold of moderate Maine Republicans like former Sen. William Cohen, former Gov. John McKernan, former Sen. Olympia Snowe and, of course, the late Sen. Margaret Chase Smith.
Collins served as a congressional staffer (for Cohen), as commissioner of the Maine Department of Professional and Financial Regulation (in McKernan’s cabinet), as regional director of the Small Business Administration, and as the deputy state treasurer of Massachusetts before making an unsuccessful run for governor in 1994. (Independent Angus King won that race, and Collins finished a somewhat distant third, behind former Democratic Rep. Joseph Brennan, who had served two terms as governor previously. Her showing did not suggest she had much of a political future.)
Two years after that gubernatorial loss, Collins ran for Cohen’s open seat. In the fall, she defeated Brennan by just over five points, 49.2 percent to 43.9 percent.
Collins’ showing was noteworthy since President Bill Clinton was carrying Maine comfortably at the same time.
Six years later, in 2002, Collins faced a serious challenger in former Maine Senate Majority Leader Chellie Pingree, now a congresswoman. But the year was a good one for incumbents, and Collins won re-election comfortably, 58 percent to 42 percent.
In 2008, Collins was challenged by 1st District Democratic Rep. Tom Allen, who on paper certainly looked like a serious threat. Elected to Congress six times, he represented half the state in the House.
With an unpopular outgoing Republican president in George W. Bush and a dynamic Democratic presidential nominee in Barack Obama, Collins clearly was swimming against a strong current.
Republican presidential nominee John McCain drew only 40 percent of the vote in Maine, winning just one of the state’s 16 counties.
Nationally, the GOP lost 21 House seats. But even in that inhospitable political environment, Collins clobbered Allen 61.3 percent to 38.6 percent – winning every county in the state.
Six years later, in Obama’s second midterm election, Collins cruised to re-election with over 68 percent of the vote against a weak Democratic challenger, Shenna Bellows.
In politics, as well as investing, “past performance is no guarantee of future results.” That is particularly true of Collins next year, since her support of Kavanaugh will likely generate a well-funded Democratic challenger.
Democrats will surely argue that Kavanaugh’s confirmation puts abortion rights and LGBT equality at risk, and they will note that re-electing Collins all but guarantees continued Republican control the Senate, which will translate into more conservative judges and more power for the GOP’s right wing.
That argument, if successful, would make the Maine Senate race less about Collins and her service to the state and more about President Donald Trump and continued Republican control of the Senate.
That narrative would not be ideal for Collins, since Democrats now control the state’s governorship and both chambers of the Maine Legislature.
But unlike 1994, 2006, 2010 or even 2018, when midterm voters sent messages of dissatisfaction about the sitting president’s performance, 2020 is a presidential year.
Voters will have separate votes to cast for president and the Senate, which means that Maine voters can send separate messages about Trump and Collins, if they prefer.
Still, with American politics becoming more partisan and ticket-splitting less common, Collins will need to convince Maine voters that she is the same independent voice that many Mainers thought she was.
And she has ammunition to make her case, including her vote to save the Affordable Care Act and her Washington Post op-ed explaining why she could not vote for Trump for president.
A handful of interesting Democratic names are being floated as possible challengers to Collins, including former national security adviser Susan Rice, 1st District Rep. Pingree, former Maine House Speaker Hannah Pingree (Chellie’s daughter) and current Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon.
Rice has not stopped speculation that she may be interested, but her lack of deep roots in the state would seem to be a serious liability in Maine.
The bottom line
Collins was underestimated politically for years, some of it because of a halting public speaking style. But her Kavanaugh vote — and her explanation shortly before she cast it — undermined a political brand that she has built over the years.
The question is how damaged she is, as well as who will carry the Democratic banner against her.
So, while it is too early to know whether she can win another term, one thing is certain: Susan Collins has a problem.
Note: This column initially appeared in Roll Call on January 15, 2019.
Alabama’s junior senator, Democrat Doug Jones, has been in office for only 13 months, but he’s already preparing to face voters again in 2020. With the Senate at 53 Republicans and 47 Democrats, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer can’t afford to lose any seats next year if he hopes to win back control of the chamber. Does Jones have any chance of winning, or is the handwriting already on the wall for a GOP pick-up in Alabama?
The top race handicappers are split on Jones’s re-election prospects.
Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race “Leans Republican,” while The Cook Political Report handicaps the contest as “Leans Democrat” and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball classifies it as a “Toss-up.”
Actually, I don’t agree with any of those calls, though I’m closest to Inside Elections’, where I remain a senior editor. I don’t think Jones has much chance at all of holding on to his seat next year.
Simply put, his special election win was a fluke, not likely to be repeated.
Jones, 64, served a little more than three years as U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama during President Bill Clinton’s second term.
He had never been elected to office when he jumped into the Senate special election to fill the remainder of Jeff Sessions’s unexpired term.
Jones had little serious Democratic opposition, winning the primary, and the nomination, with two-thirds of the vote. But only 165,000 votes were cast in the primary, much less than half of the 423,000 votes cast on the GOP side.
No Republican received a majority of that primary’s vote, so the party had a runoff between the top-two finishers: former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore (38.9 percent); and appointed incumbent and former state Attorney General Luther Strange (32.8 percent).
While the national GOP establishment was strongly behind Strange, third-place primary finisher Rep. Mo Brooks (19.7 percent) endorsed Moore.
Brooks called the runoff “an epic battle between the people of Alabama who put America first and the Washington swamp that hopes to buy our Senate seat and put America last.”
Moore won the runoff with 54.6 percent of the vote and moved into the special election as a damaged nominee.
However, many national Republicans, including President Donald Trump, who had preferred Strange, rallied around Moore’s candidacy, hoping to keep the seat in GOP hands.
Moore brought a lifetime of political baggage to the Dec. 12, 2017, special election, including being removed from the bench once, being suspended from the bench another time, alleged ties to white nationalist groups, and allegations of sexual misconduct over the years.
Jones ended up squeezing past Moore 50 percent to 48.3 percent in a major upset — and the first Senate victory for a Democrat in Alabama since Richard Shelby was re-elected in 1992. (Shelby switched to the GOP after the 1994 elections.)
Jones’s special election victory was entirely due to Moore’s nomination.
It was not a repudiation of Trump, a reflection of the state’s partisan realignment or evidence of Jones’ unique appeal.
Fairly or unfairly, Moore was seen by many state voters, including conservatives and Republicans, as a sexual predator, and some of those voters either cast their ballots for Jones or stayed home on Election Day.
In a sense, the special election became a referendum on Moore.
Jones, who had no legislative record that needed defending, campaigned as a moderate Democrat.
That made him acceptable to some voters looking for an alternative to the former judge. While partisan Republicans and conservatives still saw a vote for Jones as a vote against Trump and his conservative agenda, others simply regarded Moore as unacceptable.
Indeed, given all of Moore’s personal and political baggage, and a career of confrontation and controversy, it’s remarkable that he won a Republican Senate primary and almost won the vote in the special election.
Alabama remains as Republican as it has been for the past decade or two.
The GOP vote in the state has been stable during the past four presidential races. George W. Bush drew 62.5 percent in the 2004 presidential contest, while John McCain drew 60.3 percent four years later. Mitt Romney received 60.6 percent of the vote in 2012, and Trump won 62.1 percent in 2016.
Trump remains popular in the state. A December 2018 Morning Consult poll of the states found that his job approval had slipped in Alabama from 62 percent in January 2017 to 58 percent last month, a relatively small dip.
His populism appeals to many white voters in the state. If Republicans select a 2020 nominee without Moore’s baggage — which should be easy — Jones will face a fundamentally different challenge.
He will need to get the votes of Republicans and conservatives who remain loyal to Trump and to the Republican agenda on taxes, spending, immigration, health care, abortion and gay/transgender rights.
Jones hasn’t been the most liberal Democrat, but his high-profile vote against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh could well be enough to define him to Alabama voters as liberal and anti-Trump. (West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who narrowly won re-election in November from another very Republican state, was the lone Democrat to vote for Kavanaugh’s nomination.)
Given the state’s fundamentals, I don’t see how the Alabama race can be rated anything other than “Likely Republican.”
The state is polarized along racial and partisan lines, and the 2020 Senate race is likely to look nothing like the 2017 contest, when the Republican nominee had baggage that was disqualifying.
Obviously, Jones’ prospects would improve if the Republicans select another damaged Senate nominee, or even if Democrats nominate a more appealing presidential nominee (possibly like former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu or former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper).
So, while there are developments that could change Jones’ prospects, making them better or even worse than they start, the reality of the 2020 Alabama Senate race is simple: Doug Jones is a Democrat and a moderate in a state that is very Republican and very conservative. He starts, at least in my book, as a heavy underdog for re-election.
Note: This column initially appeared in Roll Call on January 9, 2019.