Gianni Sarra is a PhD candidate at King’s College London. He is a recipient of an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) London Interdisciplinary Social Science Doctoral Training Partnership studentship award and his doctoral research is on ‘The Dirty Rules Dilemma: Achieving Justice in Conditions of Corruption’.
Though most international eyes are on the drama of the Presidential race, control of the US Congress is just as important. All seats in the House of Representatives, the Democratic-controlled lower chamber where seats are approximately equal in population, are up every two years, but the Republican-controlled upper chamber, the Senate, works on staggered six year terms. Each state gets two Senators, regardless of population, and this November the 33 ‘Class 2’ Senators are all up for re-election.
Control of the Senate has significant implications for the near future of US, and therefore global, politics. If Donald Trump wins reelection, a Democratic-controlled Senate will be a major source of adversity for him, able to use its unique powers of advice and consent to block his appointments to high-level administrative positions and hotly contested judicial posts. If Joe Biden wins election, he’ll be dramatically limited in his ability to secure legislative wins on issues from healthcare to the environment.
The relatively small size of the Senate and the unique playing field each Senate candidate has to face means that each state’s unique and idiosyncratic nuances can end up having an outsized impact on US politics as a whole. A niche local issue or a particularly interesting candidate could decide a Senate race and, plausibly in a Senate currently divided 53-47, the course of US politics for the next few years.
This series will look at some of the more interesting races coming up that will decide control of the Senate. First, we’ll look at Alabama, where Democratic Senator Doug Jones looks to be a heavy underdog for re-election.
How Alabama, possibly the most Republican of all the states in the Deep South, elected the region’s sole Democratic Senator is a rather convoluted story. The seat that Jones currently holds had previously been held since 1997 by one Jeff Sessions. Sessions, a hardliner on immigration and drugs even by the standards of the Republican Party and a stubborn opponent of LGBT rights and criminal justice reform, became the first Senator to endorse Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign. Sessions, an easy ally for Trump’s brand of nationalism and populism, became Trump’s sole endorsement from a sitting Senator throughout the primary process. This early loyalty was rewarded with the post of Attorney General in Trump’s first Cabinet.
This left a vacancy in Alabama’s Senate seat. The Republican Governor Robert Bentley was given the task of filling that vacancy, and he tapped Alabama’s Attorney General, Luther Strange, to that post. Strange was ideologically very much in Sessions’s mold, but the appointment attracted controversy from all corners. Bentley was in the process of facing an impeachment trial, over allegations that he had used state resources and campaign contributions to conceal an affair with a senior political adviser. Some saw a quid pro quo between Strange’s appointment and his earlier request that the impeachment proceedings against Bentley be slowed.
Ten Republicans stood against Strange in the primary. In the end, two candidates – Strange and far-right former judge Roy Moore – proceeded to the run-off. Like Strange and Sessions, Moore was a big believer in using the law as a proactive weapon in the culture wars. He had twice served as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. He was removed from office both times – firstly in 2003 for ignoring a court order to remove a statue of the Ten Commandments from Alabama’s main court building, secondly in 2013 for defying the US Supreme Court by attempting to block same-sex marriage in Alabama. Even by the standards of Alabama politics, Moore was a divisive figure. Despite Trump’s endorsement of Strange, Moore was widely seen as the Trumpier candidate, and prevailed in the run-off.
And yet he was still favoured to win. Perhaps not by as much as the comparatively “moderate” Strange, but Alabama was still Alabama. That all changed when five women came forward to accuse Moore of sexual misconduct towards them when they were teenagers – including sexually assaulting a fourteen year old. Much of the Republican establishment swiftly moved to distance themselves from Moore, urging him to drop out or for Alabama conservatives to unify around a write-in candidate, but when Trump endorsed Moore a week before the election, much of the Republican Party followed.
And despite all this, Democrat Doug Jones still only prevailed over Moore by 21,924 votes – or about 1.6% of the vote.
Since being elected to office in 2017, Jones has struck a moderate and bipartisan profile, but he has by and large stuck with his party on big votes, including voting to impeach Trump and against his controversial Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. He is pro-choice, supports LGBT rights and opposes withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and repeal of the Obamacare healthcare reform legislation. Most striking about Jones’s record is what he did before running for Senate, when he served as the US Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama under Clinton’s Presidency. He famously prosecuted two Ku Klux Klan members behind the 1963 bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four black girls were killed and 22 others were injured. He also oversaw the indictment of Eric Rudolph, a domestic terrorist who targeted abortion clinics and the gay community.
With the seat up for a full six-year term in November of this year, many prominent Alabama Republicans threw their hat into the ring. The primary, again, has gone to a run-off. US Representative Bradley Byrne and Roy Moore, in an unsuccessful comeback attempt where he received an ignominious fourth place, failed to make the cut. The run-off election, originally scheduled for March but delayed to July, has come down to Sessions trying to retake his old seat and Tommy Tuberville, former head coach of the Auburn Tigers college football team. Tuberville has secured the coveted Trump endorsement and Sessions, while still trying to present himself as a pioneering Trump ally, is instead attracting a chorus of mean tweets from Trump. Sessions had resigned as Attorney General in 2018 after his decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation earned Trump’s unrelenting ire, and Trump now seems to be delighting in destroying what’s left of Sessions’s reputation. With Tuberville massively favoured to win the Republican nomination, that leaves him as Jones’s likely opponent in November – and his likely successor as US Senator.
The consensus seems to be that Jones is, of all the Senators running for re-election in 2020, the most vulnerable to being defeated by the other party. The fundamentals of the race are certainly against him. Even by the standards of the Deep South, Alabama is a heavily Republican race, and neither Tuberville nor Sessions are as toxic as Moore was. Jones is often compared to Heidi Heitkamp, North Dakota’s Senator who lost her race in 2018, as someone who is probably the best chance that Democrats have at retaining statewide office and even then will likely be defeated by a comfortable margin, if not a landslide.
It’s for that reason that Jones’s re-election bid is often viewed as more of an effort by the Alabama Democrats to boost their infrastructure and as Jones’s “audition” to be appointed by Biden as Attorney General if he loses. Despite this speculation, Jones is campaigning hard for his seat, like Heitkamp working on building a brand that goes beyond both “traditional Democrat” and “Republican-lite”. National Democrats have not yet committed much in the way of resources into defending Jones’s seat, which some take as a sign that they are prepared to let him prove his viability before committing resources needed to put him over the finish line. For now, it’s not clear extra spending will help Jones on the margin – especially as he enjoys a substantial cash-in-hand advantage over the still-unsettled Republican field.
Does Jones have a path to victory? Yes, but it is one that is unlikely to materialise. The perpetual difficulty for most Southern Democrats is that the distance between their floor and their ceiling is very low, with voting behaviour so strongly correlated to race. In contrast to states like North Dakota, where Heitkamp could at least try and court a sizeable contingent of swing voters or voters willing to back both Trump and congressional Democrats, there are very few such swing voters in Alabama. Jones will need not only to continue his palpable advantages in fundraising and organisational strength, but he’ll need lower than usual white turnout, higher than average black and minority turnout, and a degree of crossover voting from moderate Republicans and white suburbanites that he only secured last time due to the toxicity of his opponent. He’ll need to continue that balancing act of being able to maintain a moderate voting record while at the same time being able to excite liberal voters and donors. He’ll need the conversation to be about issues such as healthcare, rather than culture war issues such as Trump and guns. Even with all of these advantages in place, Jones would still marginally be the underdog.
One decision at the top of the ticket could change Jones’s chances, however. In addition to an unusually toxic Republican opponent, Jones’s victory was also powered by high turnout from African-American voters, particularly women, in a region of the country where voting habits are particularly polarised among racial lines. He will need to repeat this if he needs a shot at being reelected in November. A key supporter in this effort in the special election was Rep. Terri Sewell, previously the sole Democrat in Alabama’s congressional delegation and representative of a seat that takes in most of the ‘Black Belt’ and the majority-minority areas of many of Alabama’s cities. Sewell, an old friend and ally of the Obamas and one of Biden’s most loyal congressional backers, has received some attention as a longshot possibility for Biden’s pick as Vice President. Sewell enjoying a higher profile might change the dynamics of the Senate race here.
But ultimately, the rest of the national election will largely pass Alabama by. There are no competitive House seats in the state and the state is one of the most reliable for Donald Trump. Most expect that the Senate Democratic path to a majority requires extra gains to offset the near-inevitable loss of Alabama, and it’s hard to disagree with this logic. If Doug Jones is being reelected in Alabama, that probably suggests an overall national environment far in excess of what Democrats currently hope for. It’s true that this represents the best hope Alabama Democrats have of winning a six-year term to the US Senate since Jeff Sessions first won the open seat back in 1996. That they are still the massive underdogs is a testament to just how Republican Alabama has become.