Dems Win in Alabama – Not Just a Headline From 1999

The Briefing, Vol. V, Issue 52 – This Week:

  • Alabama loss is the least of Republicans’ problems in 2018
  • A hugely successful tax reform might be the party’s best political hope
  • Republicans may soon face another difficult House special election.


Alabama earthquake? Well, this comes as a bit of a shock. Although it was not considered impossible, it as widely believed that Republican Roy Moore would hang on and ride into the U.S. Senate in last week’s special election, despite credible allegations he had fondled teenage girls decades ago. Instead, Democrat Doug Jones pulled out the narrowest of wins in deep Red Alabama.

Was the outcome spectacular? Absolutely. Was it an earthquake like people are saying? Well…not quite.

And here’s why: No matter how spectacular the outcome was, it remains a sui generis event. It is perhaps the one out of many adverse events in 2017 that Republicans don’t need to be especially worried about.

The obvious point of comparison is to the January 2010 Senate special election in Massachusetts, in which Republican Scott Brown defeated Attorney General Martha Coakley And picked up the former seat of Jeff Sessions’ arch-nemesis, Ted Kennedy.

In contrast, the Alabama vote to replace Sessions was an election where there really was only one lesson to be taken, and it doesn’t transfer well to other states, races or cycles. Namely: If you don’t want to lose, don’t nominate Roy Moore or anyone tainted by the accusations that were credibly lodged against him.

The losing candidate this time was not just a bland and uninspiring candidate, like Coakley had been in 2010. Rather, Moore was a candidate whose alleged moral vices were so immense as to wipe completely from the race any consideration of parties, ideas, ideologies or cultural differences. For the median voter who decided this race, the only issue that mattered was whether you believed Moore or not, and if not, whether you were willing to hold your nose and vote for him anyway.

In the end, not enough voters were willing.

To be sure, there was already ample indication that Republicans will get shellacked in 2018 before this happened. The Left is clearly energized, based on turnout figures from other special elections. Trump is unpopular, Republicans have barely squeaked by in a number of House special elections, and midterms are notorious for punishing the president in power.

In the House, Republicans are especially vulnerable, and plans by Speaker Paul Ryan to quit next year reflect the excellent chance that he will be replaced by a Democratic speaker. In the Senate, Republicans are fortunate to have few vulnerable seats up for grabs in 2018, but the Alabama race also puts Democrats one step closer to a majority than they were before.

But the Alabama loss should not be taken as an especially alarming event for the GOP. And depending on what happens this week with the tax vote, it may not have any big policy implications for several months, if at all.

Tax reform: Whatever happens this year, there will be plenty of complaints about congressional Republicans. But if Republicans manage to pass their tax reform bill — and as of Sunday night they appeared on track to do so — a lack of accomplishments won’t be one of those complaints.

The package they appear ready to pass is politically appropriate for the moment because, with some exceptions, its provisions actually do a lot more for lower and middle-income families than they will for the wealthy.

Democrats have attacked the bill with their boilerplate rhetoric about tax cuts for the rich. But all of their specific objections — for example, over the loss of deductions for state and local taxes and the new limits on mortgage deductability — pertain overwhelmingly to rich taxpayers. People who take the standard deduction (most of them lower-income) will be markedly better off, especially if they have children.

On the corporate side, the tax code has been such a mess that there has been bipartisan support for reform ever since the Obama administration. But Democrats are not interested in giving Trump a win there anyway, and in any event they would have liked a rate higher than the 21 percent that the Republican proposal settles on.

Trump’s and the Republican Party’s future look bleak at the moment. Both may hinge on the effectiveness of this tax plan. If it really works as intended, and companies really do reinvest in the U.S., the economy could be doing considerably better by next fall. In that case, the political conversation could have changed as well, as could Trump’s popularity.

And that is the Republicans’ last best hope for maintaining control of Congress in the coming midterm. It isn’t a pretty though to believe that they face such a Hail Mary situation, but consider this: Democrats had a similar opportunity in 2010. They expected (or at least hoped) the stimulus would produce “Recovery Summer.” If it had, their fortunes might have turned out quite differently.

Republicans now face a reckoning which, unlike most of American political life today, depends on a straightforward policy question. Is tax reform really as badly needed as everyone thought? And will its effects be as widely felt and beneficial as all the theory predicts?

Senate 2018

Minnesota: Democratic Sen. Al Franken’s impending resignation will create a vacancy, and a special election to serve out the remainder of the second term he won in 2014.

Gov. Mark Dayton announced last week that he is appointing Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, a former Planned Parenthood lobbyist. Smith will have the inside track in the Democratic primary. Already, Congressman and DNC Deputy Chair Keith Ellison has made clear that he is not running.

Republicans could make a real go at this seat — although again, it looks like the conditions this cycle will be far from ideal. Former two-term Gov. Tim Pawlenty , R, is apparently considering the race, and issued a non-denial denial when asked about his interests. Recall that in 2002, his original intention had been to run for U.S. Senate against the late Sen. Paul Wellstone before Karl Rove managed to steer him toward the governorship and Norm Coleman (whose intentions remain unknown) toward the Senate race. Both men narrowly won their respective races.

Missouri: In case another confirmation of this was this was needed, you can take it to the bank that there won’t be any ugly primaries in Missouri next year. The Senate Conservatives Fund, which never met an establishment candidate it wasn’t willing to run a primary challenger against, has joined the Club for Growth, President Trump, and the entire Missouri Republican establishment to back Attorney General Josh Haley in his challenge to Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

This, one of Democrats’ most vulnerable seats in 2018, highlights the importance of last week’s race in Alabama. McCaskill’s position is incredibly weak, and before the Doug Jones victory a loss by her would have meant Democrats had to pick up at least four Republican seats to win a majority. Given the composition of this year’s Senate class, that would have been nearly impossible.

But now they can lose McCaskill and they still only need to win three seats currently held by Republicans. This is far more realistic — for example, if they can win in Arizona (open) and Nevada (Dean Heller), and then pick off one other apparent longshot (say, Texas or Tennessee).

House 2018

Pennsylvania-15: Rep. Charlie Dent, R, the moderate who replaced now-Sen. Pat Toomey, R, in this Allenton-area seat, is talking about resigning his seat early, possibly to take a TV gig. If he does this, Republicans will face a serious challenge hanging on to this very swing-y blue-collar district. President Trump carried it by 7 points in 2016, Mitt Romney by only three points in 2012.