Narrow wins in special elections don’t typically qualify as major political events, but Tuesday night’s Senate race in Alabama, in which Democrat Doug Jones is the apparent winner, may be the exception.
The last time Alabama sent a Democrat to the Senate was 1992, when it elected Richard Shelby, who later switched parties to become a Republican. Jones isn’t switching parties. He looks like a bona fide Democrat, if a relatively moderate one by national standards.
That alone makes the election result newsworthy, especially since strong turnout by African-American voters ― in a state famously hostile to those voters ― arguably made Jones the winner.
But Tuesday’s result will have a profound, near-immediate effect on how Washington operates for the very simple reason that a shift in this one seat dramatically alters the makeup of the Senate ― making it more difficult for the GOP to pass the kind of radical agenda its leaders have in mind.
More broadly, it sends a message that the usual rules of politics still apply: that the more Republicans defy public opinion, the more likely they are to suffer electoral consequences.
The GOP’s margin in the Senate just shrunk by half. That’s a big deal.
For the last year, Republican strategy on major legislation, like their tax cut and repeal of the Affordable Care Act, has been to pass bills through using budget reconciliation rules. That’s the special, expedited process in which senators can’t filibuster, so a simple majority will suffice.
Right now, Republicans have 52 seats, which means they can afford to lose only two seats on such proposals. (In case of a 50-50 tie, Vice President Mike Pence can break the tie in Republicans’ favor.) When Jones takes his seat, that GOP majority shrinks to 51, which means Republicans will be able to lose just one GOP vote if all Democrats vote against them.
The GOP’s margin for error just shrunk by half. That’s a pretty big deal.
As it was, GOP leaders in the Senate couldn’t hold enough seats to pass Obamacare repeal. The closest they came was on repeal legislation in July, when they lost three of their own ― Susan Collins of Maine, John McCain of Arizona and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
Some Republicans are hoping to revisit repeal next year, figuring they could flip one of those three to yes. Now, with Jones and the diminished GOP majority, they’d have to flip at least two of them. That’s a lot more difficult, especially since none of those three have shown any sign of wavering on their core commitment to preserve the program’s Medicaid expansion and protections for people with pre-existing conditions.
As for the major legislation under discussion right now, the GOP tax cut, its prospects look better. Although it’s not totally out of the question that the effort could stall, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said the party will vote on the proposal before Jones takes his seat. Even Collins is voting yes, although she’s counting on Republicans also passing a series of side measures to keep the health care system stable ― and it’s not clear House Republicans are willing to do that.
But whatever happens for the tax cut, the prospects for passing similarly sweeping legislation afterward, once Jones is in the Senate, are slim ― at least unless Republicans decide to abandon their strategy of passing legislation with party-line votes and try actual bipartisanship.
Of course, even with a suddenly diminished Senate majority, Republicans will still be able to enact an agenda, mostly because of President Donald Trump’s ability to shape policy through appointments and regulations. As HuffPost’s S.V. Date notes, there’s zero reason to think Tuesday’s result will change Trump’s behavior, because nothing changes his behavior. He is happy to defy political gravity and take his chances.
But together with the results of November’s Virginia gubernatorial election, in which another Trump-backed Republican suffered an even more crushing defeat, Tuesday’s results are proof that political gravity still exists ― that despite all the built-in advantages Republicans have, from thinly veiled suppression of African-American votes across the South to a conservative echo chamber that perpetuates the most unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, the voters still get their say.
The Alabama race had a lot to do with the idiosyncrasies of the campaign and the Republican candidate, Judge Roy Moore. But it also had to do with the GOP brand, which is hugely unpopular, and the way Trump is governing. One of the most remarkable results Tuesday was exit polling that showed Alabama voters split down the middle, 48 percent to 48 percent, on whether they approved of Trump’s performance in office. That’s quite a statement from voters in a state that voted overwhelmingly for Trump just a little more than a year ago.
If that sentiment persists, it could mean major Democratic gains in the 2018 November midterms. Forecasters already thought control of the House was in play but were more dubious about Democratic prospects in the Senate, largely because only two Republican seats ― one in Arizona and one in Nevada ― seemed vulnerable. But now that Alabama’s seat has flipped, Democrats could seize control by winning those two vulnerable seats while holding on to the ones they are defending.
In the meantime, assuming the Tuesday results hold up, Republicans are going to find legislating even harder than they have so far ― and it’s not like they’ve gotten much done already.
Correction: The original version of this article said that Shelby last ran and won as a Democrat in 1986. It was 1992.