The unsettling news for Republicans in Tuesday night’s election is not what made Alabama different — it’s the factors that make Alabama similar to everywhere else they’ll face the voters in 2018.
The factor unique to Alabama is easy to dismiss. In Roy Moore, Republicans saddled themselves with a candidate facing credible allegations of child molestation. Even with the endorsement of President Donald Trump, who beat Hillary Clinton in Alabama by nearly two to one in 2016, Moore’s baggage proved too heavy a burden for the Republican campaign horse to bear.
But other influences on in that hotly contested race will reverberate across the electoral landscape. And they now jeopardize the GOP majority in the Senate as well as the House.
Trump’s 48 percent approval among Alabama voters last night was not as weak as he is nationally, but that’s soft, nonetheless, in an exceptionally conservative state. Weak presidents endanger their parties, and Trump remains the least popular first-year chief executive in the history of polling.
Young voters, with far different views on issues such as race, gay marriage and the environment, keep asserting their influence as Republicans have lashed their fortunes to older whites. In Alabama, as in Virginia last month, big margins among those under age 45 overcame deficits among their elders for Democratic campaigns geared toward the future rather than the past.
Trump-era Republicans are hemorrhaging support from key white voter groups, especially college graduates and women. Doug Jones doubled the 15 percent share of Alabama’s white vote that former President Barack Obama received in 2012 and, at a moment of broad national concern over sexual harassment, nearly broke even among white women who have graduated from college.
The balance of electoral mobilization has shifted in favor of Democrats. Rural, blue-collar whites who surged to the polls for Trump in key states last year did not repeat that performance for other Republicans in Alabama or Virginia, while minorities and white liberals opposed to Trump have recovered energy they once applied to supporting Obama.
These related factors have produced a consistent pattern in 2017 special elections — even the ones that Democrats lost. Results in House special elections and Alabama’s Senate race show an average net shift of 16 percentage points in the Democrats’ direction, including in states such as Montana, South Carolina, Kansas and California.
Democrats need to gain 24 seats in recapture the House in 2018. They now have more than enough targets to make that possible.
To recapture the Senate, Democrats now need to gain two seats. They have two prime targets in Arizona and Nevada, and Tuesday night’s results suggest the possibility that others will emerge.