It’s been just over a month since former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore defeated appointed U.S. Sen. Luther Strange in the GOP run-off in the special election to finish out former U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions’ term. Compared to the frenetic campaign in the weeks leading up to the September 26 run-off, the past few weeks have been relatively quiet, but that doesn’t mean that attorney Doug Jones, the Democratic nominee, hasn’t made progress in the race.
This contest has been in the Likely Republican column since the run-off, which generally means that the Republican is strongly favored, but that there are reasons to keep on eye on the race. The race is now moving to the Lean Republican column. This indicates that Moore still has the advantage in the race, but it is competitive.
Running statewide in Alabama is not an easy task for a Democrat. The last Democrat to carry the state in a presidential election was Jimmy Carter in 1976 when he got 56 percent; four year later he lost the state, taking 47 percent. The next best performance came in 1996 when Bill Clinton took 43 percent in a losing effort. When it comes to the U.S. Senate, Richard Shelby was the last Democrat to win, taking 65 percent in 1992. Of course, he switched parties two years later and has been re-elected four times as a Republican. There have been eight Senate races between the two seats since then and the closest a Democrat has come to winning a race was in 1996 when Roger Bedford took 46 percent against Sessions in what was an open seat. In fact, Bedford is the last Democratic Senate candidate to crack 40 percent since Shelby’s re-election in 1992.
Democrats fare somewhat better in Governors’ races, usually getting over the 40-percent threshold, but not by much. The last Democratic Governor was Don Siegelman, who was elected in 1998, but lost his bid for a second term in 2002 when he took 49 percent.
It would seem that the floor for statewide Democrats is about 35 percent, while the ceiling is likely about 46 percent. At the same time crossing the 40-percent mark is considered an accomplishment.
Since the run-off, Moore has been quiet as he works to raise money for the final push. He hasn’t been on the air, although the Great America Alliance has put up a small buy with a spot attacking Jones on abortion. In emails to supporters, Moore paints Jones as a radical backed by George Soros. One email accused Jones of pushing a “transgender agenda.” Moore seems to have stopped attacking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, at least for the moment. That hasn’t stopped some of the groups that supported him in the run-off from demanding that McConnell and the Senate Leadership Fund (both supported Strange) start spending money on Moore’s general election effort. Frankly, and apart from Moore’s past criticisms of both entities, there isn’t any reason to spend money on Moore’s behalf at the moment given his lead in the polls.
Jones has worked to keep his campaign focused on Alabama. His campaign has been on the air for the last two weeks with a spot entitled “Washington’s Broken,” in which he says, “I’m running for the U.S. Senate because our leaders have lost sight of what it means to serve. Continuing to divide us won’t make a positive difference in people’s lives. We need more voices of reason who will listen to us. We need leaders people can talk to and trust, even if they don’t agree on everything. I’m running for Senate because Washington’s broken, and I want to fix that for Alabama.” While the ad doesn’t mention Moore, it subtly digs at the Republican. On the campaign trail, Jones talks about jobs, health care and education.
Jones has been a successful fundraiser and managed to outraise Moore in the third quarter, though Moore has raised more overall. From July 1 to September 30, Jones brought in a little over $1.3 million compared to $1 million for Moore. For the entire race, Moore has raised $2.53 million to $1.5 million for Jones. Jones finished the quarter with $1 million in the bank to $542,947 for Moore.
The last thing that Democratic strategists want is a race that is nationalized, and they have kept a lower profile than they have in other special elections this year; the special election in Georgia’s 6th congressional district comes to mind. That doesn’t mean that Jones isn’t getting some help both behind the scenes and on the campaign trail. A number of Democratic Senators are assisting with fundraising and former Vice President Joe Biden has campaigned with him. For the moment, the Moore campaign and its allies seem content to focus their attacks on social issues.
There have been four polls released since the run-off. One has the race tied, while the other three give Moore a lead of between five and 11 points. An Opinion Savvy poll (September 27-28 of 590 likely voters) had Moore leading Jones, 50 percent to 45 percent. A JMC Analytics survey (September 30-October 1 of 500 likely voter) put Moore’s lead at eight points, 48 percent to 40 percent. A FOX News poll (October 14-16 of 801 registered voters) had the race tied at 42 percent. That this sample was of registered as opposed to likely voters could contribute to the result. Finally, Strategy Research poll for Fox 10 (October 19 of 3,000 likely voters) gave Moore a 52-percent to 41-percent advantage of Jones. We are a bit suspicious of this last survey and want to see if these results are replicated in another poll.
The good news for Jones is that he breaks the 40-percent threshold in all four surveys. The bad news is that he isn’t as close to 50 percent as he needs to be. While the race probably isn’t tied as the FOX News poll suggests, it’s not surprising that the race is closer than some might expect given that Jones has been much more visible than Moore has since the run-off.
Moore is the frontrunner, but not by the margin one might expect of the GOP nominee. Still, Jones’ challenges are significant. The general election is being held on December 12, just 13 days before Christmas and most voters will be more focused on the holidays than going to the polls. Moore has a very loyal base that will turn out under any circumstance. If there is a winning coalition for Jones, it has to include just about every Democratic vote in the state as well as a healthy percentage of more establishment Republicans who can’t vote for Moore. Getting these voters to the polls won’t be easy. Of course, Moore could provide Jones an opening by making an unforced error; in the past such errors have usually come in the form of a controversial statement.
The larger point is that Jones is doing better than any Democratic Senate candidate has done in the last 20-plus years, which warrants a rating change and makes this race worth watching. If Jones gets within striking distance of victory it will probably be with Moore’s help. Moore remains favored in the race, but it move to the Lean Republican column.