How about that Alabama special Senate election? In case you missed it, Democrat Doug Jones beat Republican Roy Moore in a closely-fought special election to fill the seat vacated by Jeff Sessions when he became President Trump’s Attorney General earlier this year. Jones becomes the first Democrat elected to a Senate seat in Alabama since 1992, when the state’s current senior Senator, Richard Shelby (now a Republican, after switching parties), was elected. The race was tight all the way through, especially after significant credible reports of Moore’s dating and sexual abuse of underage girls were reported in November by the Washington Post and other outlets. Moore’s candidacy was already quite poor for a Republican in as red a state as Alabama, largely due to his incredibly controversial (and to me personally, despicable) views on the LGBT population, Muslims, and the role of Christianity in government.
So how did now-Senator-elect Jones win in Alabama when Jeff Sessions ran entirely unopposed in his last election for the same seat back in 2014? Many publications have a wide variety of takes on this issue, ranging from higher-than-anticipated African-American turnout, to depressed rural white turnout, to more suburban whites voting Democratic than in past elections. I don’t necessarily disagree with any of those opinions, but they are largely based on exit polling data and interviews, which I find to be less-than-reliable in most elections, especially ones that are as random and difficult-to-predict or analyze as special elections are. Some use voting data from specific precincts and extrapolate from there based on population demographics, but personally I’d rather use a simpler approach.
On Sunday, the senior Republican Senator from Alabama, Richard Shelby, who is widely respected and liked throughout the state (he won reelection last year easily, with 64% of the vote), went on CNN’s ‘State of the Union’ and plainly rejected the stated position of his party, saying “I didn’t vote for Roy Moore, I wouldn’t vote for Roy Moore. I think the Republican Party can do better.” He flat-out said that he wrote in a different Republican instead of Moore and counseled the people of Alabama to do the same. Shelby answered questions about the sexual abuse allegations dogging Moore with straightforward responses, stating that he found the allegations credible and could not in good conscience vote for someone with that past. This very public break with his party, when President Trump was recording robo-calls to get voters to the polls in support of Moore, was not only a courageous action in the face of strong party dissent, but also very well may have swung the election to Doug Jones.
As the final results were tallied late into Tuesday night, it became clear that the vote margin between candidates Moore and Jones was fairly slim, barely exceeding 20,000 votes. One can easily compare that vote margin (exactly 20,715 votes) to the number of write-in ballots, 22,819, an extremely high number for a special election in which there are no organized write-in efforts. In fact, only 0.2% of Alabamians wrote in their own candidate for Senate in the election last year. The write-in vote alone comprised nearly 2% of the total vote tallied in Alabama, almost entirely explaining the divide between Jones and Moore. We will never know exactly which combination of factors led to this massive electoral upset, much as we never truly understand the factors leading to any electoral victory or loss, but Senator Shelby’s last-minute plea to his fellow Alabamians surely played a large role in increasing the number of write-ins and thus harming Roy Moore’s shot at entering the US Senate.
So amidst all of the thank-yous to African-American voters and those whites in the suburbs who voted for Doug Jones, remember to thank the man who could very well be the true ‘hero’ of last night’s special election, Republican Senator Richard Shelby.