The stunning victory Tuesday by Democrat Doug Jones in Alabama’s U.S. Senate race has Georgia liberals hopeful they can re-create the same cocktail of enthusiastic black turnout mixed with a minor rebellion among white Republicans to capture that office for the first time in two decades.
Within hours of Jones’ upset win over Roy Moore, little-known contenders for Republican-held seats across Georgia used his triumph to fuel dispatches to supporters claiming it was proof that they, too, can pull off a surprising victory. And party leaders expected his win to buoy other potential candidates for seemingly long-shot seats.
The divided camps of both leading Democratic candidates for Georgia governor, too, united over Jones’ win: Both saw glimpses of their own formula for victory in his triumph.
For former state Rep. Stacey Evans, who is hoping to reclaim white moderates who once regularly voted for Democrats, the defection of suburban voters to Jones’ camp was an encouraging sign. And ex-state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, who depends on energizing African-American voters, was overjoyed by the surge in black turnout.
His win “means that the ‘blue wave’ we saw sweep through Virginia last month has moved to the Deep South — and to our own backyard,” said Abrams, vying to be the first black female governor in U.S. history.
Republicans sought to downplay the results, saying Moore, who faced a string of sexual misconduct allegations, is an isolated case. Tom Willis, who was Gov. Nathan Deal’s campaign manager, said Tuesday’s vote proves anew an old maxim: “Candidates matter.”
“Georgia Republicans are fortunate to have candidates up and down the ballot next year who will unify our supporters in every corner of the state,” he said. “Under GOP leadership, we are getting things done here in Georgia, and the voters see that.”
Still, even veteran GOP strategists and politicians said there’s little denying that a Democratic victory in a state Donald Trump carried by nearly 30 percentage points was a shot of confidence for a party that’s struggled to overcome its historic limitations across the South.
“There’s this intense feeling that many Democrats have about the president that’s driving turnout,” state House Speaker David Ralston said, adding: “As Republicans, we would be kidding ourselves if we didn’t think there was a good bit of energy on the Democratic side.”
Solid support among black women was at the core of Jones’ victory, an electoral bloc that has long been dominant in Georgia Democratic politics. Exit polls showed black women made up 17 percent of the Alabama electorate on Tuesday — and that they voted almost uniformly for Jones.
“Let me be clear: We won in Alabama and Virginia because #BlackWomen led us to victory,” Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said in a tweet. “Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party, and we can’t take that for granted.”
Voters in Alabama’s wealthiest suburbs also resoundingly rejected Moore, a troubling sign for Deep South Republicans who have long relied upon support in upscale enclaves. The suburbs are poised to be a battleground in Georgia’s 2018 election, and Jon Ossoff, the Democratic candidate this year in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District runoff, aimed for the same bloc of voters in his failed June bid for a seat representing Atlanta’s northern outskirts.
Jones captured nearly 70 percent of the vote in Jefferson County, which includes Birmingham and some of the state’s most affluent neighborhoods. And he won about 57 percent of the vote in Madison County — the home of Huntsville and a NASA facility that has made it one of the nation’s highest-educated areas.
Perhaps the clearest indication of Republican defections was signaled by the third-place finisher: About 2 percent of the votes cast were for write-in candidates, primarily from conservatives who couldn’t stomach voting for either candidate. That eclipsed Jones’ margin over Moore.
Had Moore won the contest, Democrats already signaled they intended to try tying him to every Republican on the ballot. His loss fueled a string of campaign rhetoric that boiled down to this: If Jones can do it, so can I.
Steve Reilly, who is seeking to unseat a Republican congressman in a Gwinnett County-based district, sent supporters a dispatch reading: “The good guys won one.” Sarah Riggs Amico, a business executive who recently entered the race for lieutenant governor, called it a win “for decency and the values that we as Americans hold dear.”
“We should be able to do the same here in Georgia next year — elect leaders who will build people up rather than tear them down,” she said.
And Evans, the gubernatorial candidate, said Democrats can thrive even in GOP territory when they compete with “good and decent public servants.” Her campaign often points to the three state legislative seats Democrats flipped last month in districts once considered to be solidly Republican.
“When you go out and focus on fixing what keeps folks awake at night and what binds us instead of divides us, we all win,” she said. “When we take a message of hope and opportunity to voters where they are, and then listen, everyone wins.”
Some Georgia Republicans vented their anger at U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who withheld his endorsement — and funding — from Moore’s campaign. State Sen. Michael Williams, a Republican candidate for governor, said McConnell and his allies “secretly hoped” Jones would win.
“Georgia Democrats are invigorated by the Alabama election,” he said. “We need to fight harder now more than ever.”
Others focused their ire on Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist who rallied behind Moore even as other Republicans abandoned him. “He’s taken it upon himself to remake the Republican Party,” Ralston said. “Nobody elected him to do that, frankly, and he failed in Alabama.”
Another favorite Georgia Republican takeaway had nothing to do with the deeper implications of Jones’ upset. It centered on Alabama’s relatively speedy vote count compared with Georgia’s woes in that area.
State Sen. Josh McKoon, a candidate for secretary of state, wrote: “Most shocking thing to me about the Alabama election? They count over 1,000,000 votes in less than 2.5 hours. We can do that too!”
Democrats, meanwhile, are working to capitalize on the win. U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who crossed state lines to mobilize African-American voters for Jones, said his victory was no accident. He credited Jones’ get-out-the-vote effort and the more discreet work by national liberal groups to energize voters without alienating them.
“We’ve got to organize in the state of Georgia in the same way that people in Alabama organized,” Lewis said. “Inspire people to come out and vote like they’ve never voted before. And that’s what happened in Alabama.”
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Staff writer Tamar Hallerman contributed to this report.
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