Democrats haven’t won a statewide election in Alabama in almost a decade. But in 2012, one Democrat almost pulled it off: Bob Vance, a mild-mannered circuit court judge from Birmingham, who came within 4 points of beating none other than Roy Moore.
Now Democrats are looking back at that state Supreme Court contest for clues on how their Senate nominee, former U.S. attorney Doug Jones, might improve slightly upon Vance’s performance and stage a special election upset in a state long seen as out of reach to the party.
In an interview with POLITICO, Vance described how he almost toppled Moore five years ago: by combining strong turnout from African-Americans energized by President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign with aggressive outreach to what he called “reasonable conservatives” put off by Moore’s hard-line politics — outreach that was unusually successful in Alabama’s most-educated suburbs, according to a POLITICO analysis of the 2012 returns.
It’s a narrow path, and Vance said it’s not enough for Jones to hammer Moore’s alleged history with young girls. Jones has to convince Alabama Republicans he’s the type of Democrat they could be comfortable crossing party lines to support and remind voters why Moore made them uncomfortable as a candidate even before the sexual misconduct allegations against Moore.
Moore’s Senate race against Jones has attracted much more attention than his last campaign. But the unusually close 2012 election — one of the worst statewide performances by a Republican in the last decade — outlined exactly what a Democratic win in modern-day Alabama would look like, according to state political strategists and observers.
“He’s very divisive even within the Republican Party,” Vance said of Moore. “That’s why I agreed to run against him.” He added: “I knew there were a lot of establishment Republicans who couldn’t stomach Roy Moore.”
The glaring difference this time, of course, is that there’s no Obama on the ballot to galvanize African-American voters, who regularly comprise more than two-thirds of the Democratic vote in the state. But what the Democrats will miss in Obama they hope to make up in intense dislike among black voters of both Moore and President Donald Trump.
Whether that will be enough — Jones is trying with aggressive outreach to black communities and saturation-level advertising — is perhaps the most critical question heading into Tuesday.
“Doug’s task is more difficult because he can’t take the Democratic base for granted given the weird timing of the election,” Vance said. “…I had the luxury of just focusing all my efforts” on crossover voters, Vance continued.
Vance’s GOP outreach paid clear dividends in Alabama’s populous white-collar suburbs in 2012, where he ran well ahead of Obama and Moore fell far behind Romney.
The most striking contrast was in Mountain Brook, where the Census estimates 85 percent of adults have college degrees — the highest rate in Alabama. Romney took 80 percent of the vote there in 2012, but Moore cratered to 36 percent, with Vance carrying 64 percent in the tony community known as a bastion of business-oriented Republicanism.
In Shelby County, the booming, heavily Republican suburb of Birmingham, Romney beat Obama 77 percent to 22 percent in 2012, but Vance cut Moore’s edge by double-digits, to 63-37. Shelby County has the highest share of college-educated whites in Alabama, a key demographic that has moved toward Democrats in the rest of the country in recent years. But they are less numerous in Alabama than in other states, putting a premium on Jones’ efforts to flip them against Moore and make sure they turn out to vote.
Jones’ greatest weapon in his quest to outdo Vance has been an unrelenting salvo of TV ads savaging Moore’s credentials and opening the door to Republican voters. Jones, who rarely mentions that he’s a Democrat, has put Republican voters on the air saying they can’t vote for Moore in the wake of the sexual misconduct allegations against him. Other ads highlight Moore’s votes against sexual assault victims in several state Supreme Court cases. And some highlight Republican Sen. Richard Shelby saying that he would not vote for Moore in the special election. In one of his final ads, Jones pledges to voters that he “will never embarrass you.”
In 2012, anti-Moore Republicans still came out to vote for president and other offices, but Jones can’t win if they just stay home in 2017, said Alabama-based Democratic pollster Zac McCrary. “He needs to peel off not a huge portion, but about 10 to 15 percent of self-identified Republicans,” McCrary said.
One of the counties where Vance did that best in 2012 was Moore’s home base, Etowah County, despite it being more blue-collar than other places where Vance ran ahead of Obama. “I just chalked that up to the old adage that familiarity breeds contempt,” said Vance, who now wonders if locals had some inkling about the allegations that women have aired against Moore since then.
Those allegations, including charges of child predation, could prompt further defection from Moore since 2012, though it has also provoked an outpouring of support from Moore’s most devoted followers.
“This latest set of allegations has added a giant new wrinkle,” said former Alabama GOP chair Marty Connors, who backed Sen. Luther Strange in the Republican primary but is now supporting Moore. “I mean — he’s averaging 3 points, 2 points ahead [in the polls]. Trump won the state by 28.”
One of the biggest variables in polls of the special election has been African-American turnout, which has ranged from just 17 percent of the electorate in some surveys to over one-quarter of the vote in others. Jones needs it to go as high as possible to win — and he has to do it without an African-American president on the ballot, as Vance had in his race against Moore. African-Americans comprised 26 percent of Alabama voters in 2012, according to Census data.
Jones has attacked that problem by barnstorming black churches and community events throughout Alabama’s largest cities and the “Black Belt,” a stretch of majority-black counties running through the middle of the state. Around the anniversary of the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott provoked by Rosa Parks’ arrest, Jones marched in the Selma Christmas parade and held fish fries with predominately African-American crowds in Montgomery and nearby towns. Jones speaks of his commitment to education and health care at these events — and reminds voters that he prosecuted Ku Klux Klan members involved in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing when he was a federal prosecutor.
African-American politicians including Rep. Terri Sewell and Georgia Rep. John Lewis have come to bolster Jones’ efforts, and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick are expected to help Jones in the final stretch of the campaign, the Washington Post reported.
Jones’ campaign has also circulated mailers attempting to spur African-American turnout by posing this loaded question: “Think if a black man went after high school girls anyone would to make him a senator?”
How black voters respond to Jones’ all-out courting could decide the election Tuesday — and no one knows how well it has worked.
“I haven’t talked to anyone who really has a clue how that’s going to shakeout this go-around because not only are you talking about certain historical demographic trends and expectations, you’re talking about enthusiasm,” said Vance. “I wish I could answer that question, but I can’t, because I think the bottom line is there is no way to know.”