Politics

Alabama Is a Race Worth Losing for Democrats

Just because you can't win doesn't mean you shouldn't play.

Moore's Law.

Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The Democratic candidate for Senate in Alabama, Doug Jones, will almost certainly lose the Dec. 12 election to replace Jeff Sessions, the former Alabama senator who is now U.S. attorney general. Jones is very likely to lose despite running against Roy Moore, a practicing theocrat who was thrown off the state Supreme Court for defying federal law on same-sex marriage.

Moore had previously gained notoriety, and the adoration of far-right religious chauvinists, for his performance art. He mounted successive installations of the Ten Commandments at a public courthouse to make a point about the subservience of public law to Christian doctrine. 

Jones, a white former prosecutor, is widely regarded as about as viable as a Democrat gets in a state where Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 28 points. In 2008, Barack Obama won 10 percent of the white vote there.

As the New York Times noted on Monday, Democrats confront a dastardly catch-22 if they vigorously compete for the seat. Democrats, the party of black voters in Alabama's racially polarized electorate, are so reviled by the majority of Alabama voters "that if the national party rallies behind Mr. Jones and turns his candidacy into a liberal cause célèbre, it could only doom him by pushing Republicans reluctant to support Mr. Moore back to their partisan corner."

When Democrats poured close to $30 million into a previously obscure special election for a House seat in suburban Atlanta, the result seemed to be a riled GOP electorate and a solid Republican victory. The same could easily happen in Alabama, which is far more hostile territory.

Still, Democrats should make sure their candidate in Alabama is well resourced and well advised. Not to build for the future -- there is no readily foreseeable future for Democrats in Alabama. But for other reasons.

One, Alabama is relatively cheap, making the risk limited. Television advertising in Birmingham is roughly one-fifth what it costs in Atlanta. It's cheaper still in Mobile, then cheaper again in Huntsville and Montgomery. With the election only two months away, Democrats can pour only so much money into the bog there before the campaign is over.

Two, the national Democratic base is lit. Watching Republicans bumble through their dominance of Washington may be amusing, but for Democrats it's mostly a spectator sport. The Alabama race gives the base something to rally for instead of merely against. It's an organizing tool. Besides, as Democratic consultant James Carville told the Times, “If you can’t run against Roy Moore, then what kind of party you got?”

Three, nationalizing the race may be terrible for Jones, but it's good for Democrats running in 2018. Moore, the Republican, is a hose of bigotry aimed at gays and lesbians, liberals and American pluralism. Highlighting the contest, and his party identification, will be a periodic reminder to swing voters who consume legitimate news that the Republican Party is dangerously off its rocker.

Finally, it's worth making a run because American politics is sufficiently madcap circa 2017 that anything could happen. Well, almost anything.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

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