Made by History | Perspective
November 9, 2017 at 3:25 PM
In the weeks following Judge Roy Moore’s success in securing the GOP nomination to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the Senate, we have seen repeated references to the notion that the right-wing, antigay, anti-Muslim, gun-toting, birther candidate — who has twice been suspended or removed from office — is an embarrassment to the state of Alabama.
Now come allegations that Moore spent his early 30s preying on underage females, with four women sharing their stories with The Washington Post.
The allegations have flipped the dynamics of the race for Democrats, who had until now been quietly resigned to a Moore victory. For good reason: In the Deep South it is generally the case that the Republican nominee — for any office — is destined for victory. Democrats last won a Senate race in Alabama in 1992, and the winner, Richard C. Shelby, switched parties the day after the 1994 election handed control of Congress to Republicans.
But while Republicans now dominate the state, Moore’s nomination — and now the allegations against him — have opened the door to something unthinkable: a Democratic senator from Alabama. Together with neighboring Georgia, there are signs that the Deep South might not be deep red for much longer.
It’s been a while since the phrase “southern Democrat” sounded like something other than an oxymoron. But of course, for a century after the Civil War, Democrats had a stranglehold on the South, and a winning candidate from the Party of Lincoln was unthinkable. The slow shift began when President Lyndon Johnson, a Texas Democrat, spearheaded civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s. Even then, white southern Democrats hung on as long as they could, clenching segregation in their jaws like angry bird dogs.
Realignment took time. Democratic Sen. John Stennis of Mississippi may have softened his stance on civil rights in 1982, when he voted to extend the Civil Rights Act, but he still voted against making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a national holiday in 1983. John Sparkman, Alabama’s Democratic senator from 1946 to 1979, was liberal by southern standards, a New Dealer in favor of public housing. He was succeeded by another Democrat, Howell Heflin, who served until 1997. But neither would be simply understood as a “Democrat” today — Sparkman because of his fierce opposition to Brown v. Board of Education and Heflin because of his tempered conservatism.
The persistence of conservatism within the Democratic Party made for political platforms that seem odd, even unthinkable, today. Heflin opposed legalized abortion and gay rights and supported gun rights, but he didn’t consistently toe the line with Republicans when it came to economic issues, and he famously spoke up for Carol Moseley Braun, the first African American woman senator, in a 1993 Confederate flag controversy. (Mitch McConnell stood firmly on the other side.) Heflin expressed a moderate pro-civil-rights stance, yet he also sided often with the arch-racist Sen. Strom Thurmond on judiciary committee votes.
Heflin was the Old South and the New South all rolled up together. His uncle had also been an Alabama Democratic senator — and a dedicated Klansman. That someone like Heflin could be an Alabama senator just a generation later indicates an electorate that was still at base conservative, but inching (if in fits and starts) toward moderation. “We must get racism behind us,” he said. “We must move forward. We must realize we live in America today.”
Heflin was, in sum, a respectable conservative Democrat, a strange breed struggling to hang on even as right-wing Republicans displaced the old school conservative Democrats of the South in the years following Reagan’s election. And indeed, the new Republicans would definitively squeeze out the old Democrats with Sessions’s election in 1997.
Now, on the one hand, we could assume that a state that backed a right-winger like Sessions for 20 years and voted heavily for Ronald Reagan, both Bushes and Donald Trump could never again elect a Democratic senator. But Heflin’s story reminds us that Alabamians can — and once did — support conservative Democrats.
So well liked was Heflin by his base that he was not even punished at the ballot box for voting against Sessions’s judicial appointment in 1986. It had pained the senator to reject Reagan’s nominee, but he was concerned about Sessions’s civil rights record. It was a courageous — and respectable — act that reminds us of the courage that so many congressional conservatives lack today.
Heflin’s very respectability also helps highlight the fact that one must see the disreputable Moore as a giant step backward, a man who does no favors for law-abiding Alabamians, conservative or otherwise. Moore’s recent victory over Luther Strange in the Republican primaries could potentially be quite marvelous for southern Democrats — if, and only if, there is a very particular alignment of the stars.
Enter Doug Jones.
Jones, the Democratic nominee, was barely on the national radar before Moore’s victory. Now he is being widely praised as the U.S. attorney who successfully prosecuted two of the Klansmen responsible for the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Historian Diane McWhorter recently noted that Jones will appeal not only to black voters but also to white southerners who run in polite circles and who are comfortable with a “deer-hunting, bourbon-drinking” centrist who has already done much good for the state. McWhorter is hopeful, if not altogether optimistic.
Indeed, no one is altogether optimistic about Jones’s prospects. But now is the time when this campaign can move from far-fetched to viable. For that to happen, Jones needs financial support both within and outside the state — and also, crucially, from the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
The linchpin of this race will be engagement: making people care about an off-cycle election, getting out the vote and pulling in a reasonable number of Republicans who cannot stomach Moore’s disreputability. On Tuesday, Democrats showed this can be done. But not without an infusion of Democratic cash.
Here’s where we can learn a few lessons from moderate Democrat John Ossoff’s failed attempt to win a House seat in Georgia in a June special election. The Ossoff campaign raised some $25 million, most of it from small donors, though about $5 million came from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. But Republican Karen Handel still won by just under 4 points. Four points!
Some outside the South saw this as a crushing defeat. But the race had been close until the bitter end. It would be a mistake to write it off as a waste of time and money on the part of the Democratic Party.
Maybe Ossoff lost because he wouldn’t run negative TV ads. Maybe he lost because his opponent was a career politician. And maybe, just maybe, he lost because Georgia’s 6th district, which has shifted blue in recent years, and has also become more racially and ethnically diverse, is still only around 48 percent Democratic, the percentage of votes Ossoff got in both the so-called “jungle primary” and the general election.
Ossoff ran a strong campaign and only narrowly lost in a red state with little patience for liberals. Recall that Jimmy Carter lost his 1965 bid for governor by appearing too moderate and that in his inaugural address after being sworn in 1969 Carter declared that “the time for racial discrimination is over,” but he quickly added, “We Georgians are fully capable of making our own judgments and managing our own affairs.” He thereby spun himself as both moderate and conservative: opposing racism but rejecting federal government intervention. Georgians had just endured four years under pro-segregation governor Lester Maddox, and many of them were ready to move forward.
Could Alabama’s citizens now be facing a similar watershed moment?
If they are, Jones is the candidate to bet on. In fact, two weeks ago a Fox News poll showed the candidates tied in the polls with 42 percent of the vote each. Instead of assuming that the GOP cannot lose in the South, we need to remember the persistent legacy of southern Democrats. Jones, after all, began his career as staff counsel for Heflin. As he seeks to fill Sessions’s seat in Congress, he sometimes says he is campaigning for Heflin’s.
That’s the kind of talk that just might work in the heart of Dixie.