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Doug Jones' Alabama win can't distract from the lessons Democrats must learn

Not every Republican opponent in 2018 will be Roy Moore. Liberals need to embrace the issues, and black voters.

by Jason Linkins /
Supporters of Doug Jones erupt is celebration during an election-night watch party on Dec. 12, 2017, in Birmingham, Ala. In a stunning victory aided by scandal, Democrat Doug Jones won Alabama's special Senate election, beating back history, an embattled Republican opponent and President Donald Trump, who urgently endorsed GOP rebel Roy Moore despite a litany of sexual misconduct allegations.John Bazemore / AP
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On Tuesday night, the bright lights and festive cheer of the holiday season couldn’t compete with the glow and glee of Democrats across the country, as first-time candidate Doug Jones pulled out a scrabbling, surprising victory over former Alabama Supreme Court judge-turned-Senate candidate Roy Moore. Jones’ win marked the first time since 1990 that a Democrat prevailed in a Senate race in the Yellowhammer State.

The victor that year, now-Sen. Richard Shelby, switched his allegiances to the GOP during the Republican revolution of 1994. But, this year, Shelby revolted against his own party during an appearance on CNN’s State of the Union, in which he said, "I didn't vote for Roy Moore. I wouldn't vote for Roy Moore. I think the Republican Party can do better."

Oh, you think? Look, we needn’t beat around the bush here. During the campaign, nine women accused Moore of sexual misconduct -- ranging from monstrous lechery to outright sexual assault -- and some of the victims were in their mid-teens at the time of Moore’s predations. And Moore never really got his story straight in responding to his accusers, alternately calling the reports “fake news” and suggesting the women in those stories were opportunistic liars. Moore would declare on one day that he did not “know any of these women,” only to have his campaign manager insist that “If he did date a teenager, he didn’t know about it,” days later. Sometimes, Moore’s campaign called these women’s accusations were “malicious.” At other times, it would insist that Moore’s relationships with these women were just a part of a quaint social tradition that liberal elites outside of Alabama couldn’t possibly understand.

It finally became clear that our current demented hellscape of politics would finally prove to have an outer boundary.

It’s equally important to remember that all of these ghastly accusations were bookended by Moore’s past history of bigotry toward Muslims -- who Moore declared to be unfit to serve in government -- and the LGBT community, antipathy for women occupying elected office and, in the latter stages of his desperate campaign, some choice anti-Semitism by Moore's wife, Kayla. The former judge was always a lurid cartoon villain toting a teacup pistol and riding a horse nearly to death, a man elected to serve the U.S. constitution and laws of man who used his fealty to a monument to the Ten Commandments (if not the Commandments themselves) as a means to politic on piousness.

And yet what made this election result so preposterous, and left Democrats shouting “Holy [expletive deleted]!” at the pure, gut-churning shock of their victory, was that the outcome was such an excruciating nail-biter. Despite all of Moore's many flaws, a Jones victory was, for most liberals living under a Trump administration, too much to hope for until the moment it finally became clear that our current demented hellscape of politics would finally prove to have an outer boundary.

However, while Democrats will likely crow about their historic victory and give themselves over to some gloating at the president’s expense, they’d be well served to climb down from the grandstands before the air up there gets too thin. Successive victories in Virginia and Alabama might well feel like momentum, but it’s hard to point to this one as a sure sign of things to come.

Surely, at a minimum, Democrats would prefer that, the next time they face a candidate as flawed as Moore, they’ll win by a wider margin.

The chance to run head-to-head against a less morbidly fascinating opponent can be a real opportunity to showcase for voters that for which the party really stands.

Smart Democrats already understand that, in 2018, their candidates will, in all likelihood, not find themselves in the fortunate position of running against the electoral equivalent of an anthropomorphic Jack Chick cartoon tract. So they should resist the temptation to try to turn their opponents into lesser Roy Moores, instead filling the space with their own bold ideas and their vision for responsible governance. It's clear that, when a candidate like Moore is in the race, the media is so likely to fixate on that person’s sordid backstory that it occludes the substance of your candidate’s policies and the merits of their ideas. However, the chance to run head-to-head against a less morbidly fascinating opponent can be a real opportunity to showcase for voters that for which the party really stands -- but Democrats will have to have discipline to seize it.

Another crucial lesson to be learned in the wake of Jones’ victory is that every person's right to vote must be protected for a just and equitable world to flourish. Just because stories about the Alabama election are going to hinge on mass turnout among African-Americans doesn’t mean that voter suppression isn’t real or that it doesn’t work. More likely, it just means that black voters are, once again, throwing more bodies at the barricades. If it takes, say, five black voters turning out to ensure that three black voters get their votes properly counted (and this is the most biting ratio I could imagine here) then there is still a massive voter suppression problem.

The quickest path to lifting people out of socio-economic distress is to give them real political capital to spend.

Democrats can’t stop with simply ensuring that black voters (and other voters of color) can cast their ballots. Doug Jones’ victory in Alabama is the product of black labor, the relentlessness of which needs, at long last, to be rewarded in real terms. Democrats need to make an investment in the organizations that black organizers have erected to ensure their own electoral survival. Those leading the charge at street level need to be cut in to the party's machinery, given real seats at the table and handed real organizational influence and funding. What they know about the grotty business of getting voters registered and mobilized in their communities has to be heeded and their efforts empowered -- and if that means some spreadsheet-toting, professional class (and mostly white) wonks have to take a back seat at DNC headquarters, in state parties and on the campaign trails, so be it. The quickest path to lifting people out of socio-economic distress is to give them real political capital to spend. Black voters have been waiting for this sort of commitment while doing their level best to serve Democratic candidates, and they deserve some return on their efforts.

And yet, the most important lesson for Democrats is, perhaps, the most obvious one. They have to get out there and chase elections, vie for seats and run in those against-the-odds races in the most hopeless districts every single time. Right now, when you look at Doug Jones, you see a political neophyte who benefitted from some outrageous fortune -- with those accusations of sexual misconduct against Moore coming at the precise moment that he needed them. It’s funny, then, to remember that the man whose seat Jones will now occupy, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, ran unopposed in 2014. Now Sessions is at the center of some of the Trump administration's’ most despicable policies, his reward for having helped pave Trump’s way to the White House.

Could Sessions have been thwarted in 2014? No one would have bet on it. But then, no one would have gambled on Jones winning either. This year, however, Jones prevented a howlingly unfit man from taking a Senate seat; the country is better off as a result. To pull that off took more than just luck: He had to compete in the first place.

Jason Linkins is a political columnist who served as the editor of Eat The Press at the Huffington Post.

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