In 2009, after so-called “liberal lion” Sen. Ted Kennedy died of cancer, Massachusetts held a special election the following January to replace him, with Democratic appointee Paul Kirk holding the seat in the interim. Martha Coakley, the commonwealth’s Attorney General and Democratic nominee, went up against Scott Brown, a former Playgirl model and something of a lightweight whom Charles Pierce of Esquire called “Senator McDreamy.” Coakley assumed she was headed for a coronation and famously didn’t think she should even bother campaigning — and she lost to Brown in a rather stunning upset, 57-42.
Bear with me for why this race mattered then and matters now. As it had in 2009, Massachusetts’ entire congressional delegation consists entirely of Democrats — nine representatives plus two senators (Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren). In fact, apart from Sen. Brown’s fluke victory — he was elected only to serve out the remaining two years of Kennedy’s term, and Warren went on to beat him 54-46 to win a full term — Massachusetts hasn’t sent a Republican to either chamber of Congress since the mid-1990s. In other words, in the last 22 years, there have been more than 100 separate elections, and a Democrat won each of them, except for a single anomaly.
Going into the Coakley-Brown special election, Democrats held a 60-vote majority in the U.S. Senate, and all talk was about the impending passage of the Affordable Care Act. Owing to the structure of the Senate filibuster, losing even a single vote could have jeopardized the entire thing. The final vote occurred on Dec. 24, 2009, and it was 60-39 (with one Republican abstention.) The timing was crucial, as Brown won barely a month later in what was seen as the first referendum on Obamacare, and he took office in February. Since then, the Democrats have lost a net 11 seats, and Republicans currently control the Senate, 52-48.
That single loss in a reliably blue state ushered in an era of retrenchment. The Obama Administration’s ambitious legislative agenda essentially died in early 2010, with only occasional successes to follow. In the face of vigorous Republican opposition — and let’s never forget that Obamacare was really Romneycare, an explicitly-non-socialist compromise borne out of the Heritage Foundation and enacted in Massachusetts under the same Republican who lost the 2012 presidential election — Obama was reduced to governing largely by executive order. Republicans used to hate that strategy, too, although that was before it meant sticking it to trans soldiers or barring people from majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S.
But now we have come to a situation that is almost the mirror opposite. Doug Jones, a sensible, scandal-free, middle-of-the-road Democrat, had been poised to be the party’s sacrificial lamb in a Dec. 12 special election in Alabama to select the replacement for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who resigned from his Senate seat to lead the Justice Department. That was because Democrats don’t win statewide much in Alabama these days. Then something remarkable happened. Sessions’ temporary replacement, Sen. Luther Strange — appointed by Kay Ivey, who became Alabama’s governor after her predecessor resigned in a sex scandal — lost the primary to one Judge Roy Moore.
Moore, as everyone now knows, is a theocrat to his very marrow, a jurist who’s the evangelical equivalent of a proponent of Shariah. He explicitly believes Christians should have more rights than non-Christians, and he’s not so much anti-LGBT or anti-secularism as anti-modernity. He’s embroiled in a sex scandal of such proportions that it’s almost magnificent to behold, with multiple women coming forward to say that he pursued them when they were as young as 14. This is no he-said, she-said between nebulously consenting adults. There was no haze of alcohol involved. There isn’t even an apology to be made. Moore is a guy who thinks the Bible says it’s OK for a man in his 30s to pursue women in their early teens — for their purity. He’s not denying his behavior, because he genuinely believes it has divine sanction.
Let’s put this in context. The same people who, as recently as 2015, were decrying same-sex marriage as an affront to propriety and the downfall of public morality, have, in a perverse way, proven themselves right. Because they’re the ones whose corruption has been laid bare, as they find themselves in the indefensible position of defending an adult who preys on underage girls and wraps himself in Biblical morality to justify it. It’s the kind of sex scandal you might associate with patriarchal nomadic tribes, not an advanced Western democracy. Meanwhile, the GOP Establishment is panicking, knowing that, if elected, Moore could become a Ted Cruz on steroids, a rogue cannon aimed every which way once he’s granted admission to their club.
Moore’s self-absolving incredulousness has become weaponized, too. For decades, Republicans have won office by telling people that a nefarious “other” composed of Muslims, gays, coastal liberals, and the mainstream media have been conspiring to take away “their” rights. Let’s ignore the nonsense and take that argument at face value. In trying to nix Moore — either by urging him to step aside, itching to postpone the election outright, or promising to expel him from the Senate if he’s elected, thereby forcing another election — Republicans are doing exactly what they said liberals try to do. The result is that Moore has every reason not to disappear himself, and a goodly percentage of Alabama’s electorate seems more, not less, likely to support him because of the pressure bearing down on their candidate. How could the GOP not see that coming? Whatever tattered remnants of the cloak of “master tactician” Mitch McConnell once draped on his shoulders have just blown away.
Respected election observer Cook Political calls the Alabama race a toss-up. Fivethirtyeight.com says Moore is only the slight favorite. This is Alabama, one of the reddest states in the country, a state Trump-Pence won 62-34. Donald Trump, who vocally supported Strange, then deleted all his tweets once Moore trounced him in the primary run-off, has all but endorsed Moore. The president knows what’s on the line.
Jones will probably lose. Again: Alabama. His only real path to victory is squeezing every last Democratic vote out of the state, flipping a handful of persuadables (read: educated white women), and hoping Moore’s conduct disgusts enough Republicans that GOP turnout drops appreciably. But if Jones wins, it will be a stunning result. The current two-vote GOP majority will be cut in half, and — barring a death or explosive allegations of sexual misconduct elsewhere, both of which are fairly likely, especially since Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) should resign — it’ll stay that way until the 2018 midterms. Initially forecast to be a disaster for the embattled Democratic caucus, next November’s election is looking a little rosier every day.
For seven years, the Republicans promised to overturn Obamacare. They couldn’t do it, because they couldn’t get 50 votes in the Senate (with Vice President Pence there to break the tie). Imagine how much harder it will be to enact tax reform, or fill a Supreme Court seat, with one vote fewer to count on. Assuming the continuation of Democratic unity, all it takes is for Donald Trump to piss off John McCain (R-Ariz.) one more time in order for the irascible senator — who’s staring down a poor cancer prognosis — to go out guns blazing. Or maybe outgoing senators Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Bob Corker (R.-Tenn.) will realize their power during their remaining year-and-change to deny their hated leader a win. Or Susan Collins (R-Maine), the only genuine Republican moderate who remains.
Or Lisa Murkowski, the quasi-maverick from Alaska who helped torpedo Obamacare repeal. Or Lindsey Graham or John Kennedy, two reliable conservatives but also the only two GOP no-votes on a recent bill to screw ordinary Americans and reward Equifax. Or Dean Heller, the Nevada Republican who’s the party’s most imperiled incumbent. Or Rand Paul, the grandstanding libertarian and purity troll. Or Ron Johnson, an otherwise conventional Republican who’s vocally opposed to the tax-reform bill. Or Mike Lee, Ben Sasse, and Ted Cruz, fellow divas who occasionally stick it to Trump for being insufficiently conservative. Or David Perdue of Georgia or Cory Gardner of Colorado, both of whom represent states that are turning bluer and bluer. It’s not hard to envision the cracks radiating outward as the coming Democratic wave begins to swell and self-preservation gets baked into every little decision Republicans make.
If Doug Jones wins, he’ll face certain doom in 2020, when he’d be up for re-election. And surely he’ll do his best to prevent that from happening, which likely means breaking with the Democrats on a key vote from time to time to demonstrate a credible independent streak. There’s also the risk that a Heidi Heitkamp (D-
Bakken FormationNorth Dakota) or Joe Manchin (D- Open pit strip mineWest Virginia) could sense an opening for themselves to maximize their own leverage in wresting concessions on legislation. Maybe they’ll even extract a promise from McConnell that if they vote with the GOP once or twice, he’ll agree not to throw millions of dollars at their 2018 opponents. But it’s likely that Jones could do to the Trump regime what Brown did to Obama, simply by acting as the symbol of the drubbing to come.
Imagine, Alabama could be the great liberal white whale: the thing that finally, at long last, undoes Donald Trump. And to think, he could have avoided all of this if he hadn’t appointed a pro-asset forfeiture neo-Confederate revanchist to be his Attorney General, triggering this special election in the first place. Like so much of the president’s crucial errors, this is all of his own making.
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