A week since Doug Jones's stunning election to the Senate, the political world is still processing the shock of watching crimson Alabama turn blue. For progressives, there was poetic justice in a renowned civil rights lawyer who prosecuted the Ku Klux Klan defeating an open bigot and alleged child molester, helped to victory by highly motivated black women who mobilized voters in their communities. Jones will now occupy an office previously held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions as well as Edmund Pettus, the Confederate general and KKK grand dragon whose name still defaces the Selma bridge where civil rights marchers were beaten bloody in 1965.
Beyond its symbolic power, Jones’s triumph has strategic meaning for Democrats as they look to 2018. Indeed, while the party benefited from President Trump’s plummeting approval rating and Republican nominee Roy Moore’s panoply of scandals, Jones could not have won such a close contest without critical choices made throughout the campaign.
First, the outcome may have been different without activist groups' commitment to registering black voters and ensuring their ability to cast a ballot. Alabama, of course, has been at the center of the battle for voting rights for more than 50 years, from the Selma-to-Montgomery march to the Shelby County v. Holder decision overturning key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. In 2015, Republican officials followed the implementation of a strict voter ID law by trying to shutter 31 driver's-license offices across the state. (After a national backlash, the offices were reopened "on a very limited schedule.") If Moore had prevailed, Republicans' ongoing efforts to suppress the black vote could have been the deciding factor.
Yet these obstacles didn't deter activists from making a concerted effort to register as many eligible voters as possible, with an emphasis on felons and those at risk of being disenfranchised by the state's identification requirements. One particularly noteworthy effort was led by Pastor Kenneth Glasgow, president of The Ordinary People Society (TOPS), who registered thousands of people with felony convictions, black and white, who gained eligibility through a law signed in May.
Second, the election clearly demonstrated the value of making real investments in grass-roots operations and mobilization efforts. After all, while the fundamental right to vote is sacred, it makes a tangible difference only when people are motivated to go to the polls. In addition to TOPS, faith-based activist groups including Black Church PAC and Faith in Action Alabama conducted massive outreach at black churches across the state. WOKE Vote mobilized students at historically black colleges and universities. BlackPAC, Black Voters Matter and local NAACP chapters collectively knocked on hundreds of thousands of doors. These efforts are a big part of the reason that exit polls found black voters, who voted 96 percent for Jones, comprised roughly 29 percent of the electorate, equal to or higher than either of President Barack Obama's victories.
Many activist groups in Alabama operated on limited budgets, but some received substantial assistance from national organizations. The return on these investments should serve as a reminder to Democrats moving forward that building up grass-roots infrastructure is by far the most effective way to connect with voters and that supporting work of grass-roots activists between elections is essential. To that end, it is encouraging that Jones reportedly plans to hire a liaison to engage with the state's labor movement after he takes office.
Third, the fact that Democrats won a statewide race in Alabama proves it is possible they can win anywhere while speaking honestly about their values. Unlike some Democrats running in traditionally red states, Jones did not shy away from taking progressive stances on important issues. He argued that health care is a right and drew on his experience as a federal prosecutor to advocate for criminal-justice reform. On abortion, an issue that some observers expected to sink his chances, he refused to temper his pro-choice views and unequivocally opposed legislation in Congress that would ban abortions after 20 weeks.
Rather than becoming the "crippling problem" that some predicted, Jones's steadfast support for women's reproductive rights turned out to be part of a winning strategy. "Doug Jones is walking proof that candidates can run and win without sacrificing the core values we stand for as a party," NARAL president Ilyse Hogue stated, "the values that American women and families depend on us to uphold."
After a string of recent victories, Democrats have reason to be cautiously optimistic about their prospects in 2018 — not just in their bid to regain control of Congress but also in state and local races across the country. In Georgia, for example, state Rep. Stacey Abrams could become the country's first black female governor in a race that deserves more attention. While a wave election is possible, however, Democrats should not be overly confident. They still need to engage in big debates about the party's direction, work harder to build grass-roots infrastructure and offer voters a bolder vision proudly based on progressive values.
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