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10 thoughts after the Alabama Senate election

There will be plenty of time to analyze the Alabama Senate special election (at least until the next special election on March 13 in Pennsylvania’s 18th District), but here are some initial post-election thoughts.

Sen.-elect Doug Jones speaks during a news conference

Sen.-elect Doug Jones speaks during a news conference Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017, in Birmingham, Ala. Photo Credit: AP / John Bazemore

One of the best parts about covering elections is that there is always a result. After all the prognosticating, projecting, discussing and arguing, there’s a winner. But determining the true meaning of victory and loss can be difficult.

There will be plenty of time to analyze the Alabama Senate special election (at least until the next special election on March 13 in Pennsylvania’s 18th District), but here are some initial post-election thoughts:

This was a historic victory for Doug Jones. Of course, Roy Moore had some unparalleled flaws as a candidate, but Jones overcame a 20-point deficit in partisan performance to win. The last Democrat to win a Senate race in Alabama was Sen. Richard C. Shelby in 1992, and he’s now the state’s senior senator as a Republican. This upset will be talked about for years to come.

The seat is more important than being a bellwether. In the short term, Jones’ victory narrows the Republican majority, making it more difficult to pass legislation next year. In the longer term, it puts Democrats one seat closer to the majority in 2019. It was also the most difficult seat of the three-seat gain Democrats need, considering the party has better takeover opportunities in Nevada and Arizona next year. They still have to run the table for a majority, but it’s now easier with the special election victory in Alabama.

Republicans avoid one headache. Jones in the Senate puts Democrats closer to the majority, but at least Republicans on the Hill will avoid the endless questions about what to do with Roy Moore.

The Republican civil war isn’t over. Moore’s allies, Trump supporters, and Steve Bannon will likely blame the loss on the GOP establishment for abandoning Moore, while anti-Moore Republicans will blame the likes of Bannon for supporting a candidate who was unelectable beyond the primary. The fight for the heart and soul of the GOP isn’t over.

Gotta give Jones and the Democrats credit. Moore and the Republicans did their best to give this race away, but Democrats still needed to run a terrific campaign to overcome the state’s partisan lean. They had to thread multiple needles, including attracting funding from Democrats across the country without giving the appearance of a nationalized race.

It’s not impossible for a Democrat to win a state that Trump carried by nearly 30 points, but boy, did it take a lot. Democrats won’t have the luxury of running against an alleged child molester in races around the country, but the good news for the party is that they don’t have to win in many areas as Republican as Alabama to win majorities in the House and Senate. The two candidates who have to pull off similar feats as Jones next year for Democrats to win a majority are Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota (where Trump won by 36 points) and Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia (where Trump won by 42 points). But both of them start from a stronger position than Jones.

The House majority was at risk before Alabama and the House majority is at risk after Alabama. It’s unclear how applicable the Jones victory is to House races given the unique circumstances surrounding Moore as a candidate. But Democrats won’t need to win districts as Republican as Alabama to net the 24 seats necessary for a majority. If they can replicate the turnout of African-American voters, that would boost their prospects in some districts. But that’s still unclear and doesn’t necessarily apply to every race.

It was a good night for the polling average. Neither result should have been a surprise, considering Moore had a narrow 48 percent to 46 percent advantage in the final RealClearPolitics average. But that was much closer to the final outcome than late polling which showed Moore with a 9-point lead (Emerson College) and Jones with a 10-point lead (FOX News).

Overall, a relatively small percentage of Americans vote. Even though turnout was higher than expected, about 35 percent of voting-age Alabamians chose to vote in the most highly-publicized election in the state in recent history.

2018 is going to be a heck of a ride. With dozens of races happening simultaneously and uncertain turnout projections, next year’s midterm elections should be another historic moment with a potential Democratic comeback just two years after humiliating losses.