Alabama: A Feather in Chris Van Hollen’s Cap
By Josh Kurtz
It’s easy to forget in Maryland that our junior U.S. senator, Chris Van Hollen, is chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Van Hollen had plenty to crow about Tuesday night and Wednesday morning with Democrat Doug Jones’ stunning victory in the Alabama special Senate election.
Van Hollen was on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” bright and early Wednesday to talk about “the political earthquake,” and he put out a forceful statement on Tuesday night that’s worth reprinting in full:
“In the last two months, Doug Jones traveled more than 8,100 miles to meet with Alabamians, hear their stories and share his vision to get things done for Alabama families: secure good-paying jobs, invest in public schools across the state and make health care more affordable,” he said. “Tonight, Alabamians told Doug they need him to travel a little further up to Washington and put his ideas to work in the U.S. Senate. This race took a lot of unexpected turns but there was always one constant: Doug Jones would proudly represent Alabamians and we are proud to welcome him.
“Today, in one of the most Republican states in the nation, the people of Alabama chose common decency and integrity over partisan politics. Donald Trump and the Republican National Committee did the opposite, siding with a candidate who wanted to drag Alabama back to the days of George Wallace and faced a mountain of credible evidence that he had engaged in child sexual abuse. At his recent rally, President Trump said Roy Moore stood for Republican and Alabama values. Today, the people of Alabama sent a very different message: they soundly rejected the new Republican Party of Roy Moore and Donald Trump and their toxic agenda. President Trump, Republican Senate candidates and the Republican National Committee showed us exactly who they are by standing with Roy Moore — and we will make sure voters do not forget it.”
Could Democrats be reading too much into Tuesday night’s results? Maybe. The Alabama special election, with an accused pedophile with a bigoted history as the Republican nominee, was unlike any other in recent memory.
But even if the campaign was without historical precedent, Jones’ narrow victory has galvanized both political parties and offered lessons and rallying cries for 2018.
It also means the Senate is in play next year – an idea that seemed unthinkable even a few weeks ago. Republicans will hold a 51-49 edge when Jones is sworn in.
The South has been a killing field for Democrats for multiple election cycles. Now the region – and specifically Tennessee – may hold the key to Senate Democrats’ fortunes in 2018.
Even though many political analysts believe 2018 will be a strong Democratic year, as President Trump’s poll numbers plummet and the GOP is riven by internecine warfare, the Democrats’ ability to retake control of the Senate still remains a difficult climb. Democrats are defending 26 seats – including 10 in states that Trump carried – while Republicans are defending just eight.
With that fragile math, the Democrats’ ability to win in the South becomes critical – and Tennessee looms ever larger in the 2018 equation.
Enter Phil Bredesen, the Volunteer State’s former Democratic governor. After months of deliberating – and much cajoling from national party leaders, including Van Hollen – Bredesen, 74, jumped into the race last week for the Senate seat being vacated by Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R).
Until then, Democrats had almost no chance of winning the seat. But with Bredesen, a soft-spoken moderate who left office in 2010 with high job approval ratings, they have a prayer. The Cook Political Report now rates the Senate race a “toss-up.”
“For Republicans, this seat which seemed like a very safe bet at the start of the cycle is now one of its most vulnerable,” Jennifer Duffy, the political tipsheet’s Senate analyst, said in the wake of Bredesen’s announcement.
Republican strategists were quick to try to link Bredesen with liberal national Democrats who recruited him.
“No matter how hard he tries, Phil Bredesen is not going to escape the toxic reality that he’s a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat,” Michael McAdams, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Tuesday. “Bredesen’s decades-long career supporting Democratic policies and donating to progressives like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton stands in direct opposition to the values Tennessee voters are looking for in their elected officials.”
The last time a Democrat won a U.S. Senate seat in Tennessee was in 1990 – when Al Gore earned a second term. Gore lost his home state in 2000 when he was the Democratic presidential nominee. (Gore yesterday was tweeting about the wildfires in California, not about Southern politics.)
Bredesen was the last Democrat elected to statewide office in Tennessee, in 2006 – a major Democratic year nationally. He won all of the state’s 95 counties then.
But that seems like a different era.
Last year, Trump took 61 percent of the vote in Tennessee, compared to 35 percent for Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Bredesen acknowledged the challenge in an interview with The Tennessean in Nashville last week.
“Just by the arithmetic of the situation, there are hundreds of thousands of voters out there who voted for me in 2006 and voted for Trump last year,” he said. “They haven’t all changed their political views radically, they just changed who they thought was going to do some of the things they wanted. For me, the trick is to do the same things in that race, which is go back out and talk to those people.”
Trump’s showing in Tennessee was almost identical to the 2016 White House result in Alabama, where Trump took 62 percent to Clinton’s 34 percent.
But exit poll results from Alabama yesterday have got to be making Republican strategists nervous. In one of the reddest states in the nation, just 48 percent of voters said they approved of the job Trump is doing as president. Another 48 percent said they disapproved.
Favorability ratings for the two parties were identical in the exit poll: 44 percent of voters said they had a favorable view of Democrats and 52 percent viewed them unfavorably. Forty-three percent had a favorable view of Republicans, and 51 percent viewed them unfavorably.
Like Tennessee, Alabama last elected Democrats to statewide office in 2006. The last time a Democrat won a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama was in 1992. That was Richard Shelby, currently Alabama’s senior senator. He switched parties in 1994 and has been re-elected easily ever since.
In addition to Tennessee, Senate Democrats are on offense in Arizona and Nevada next year, and to a very slight degree, in Texas. But they are playing defense in West Virginia, Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota and a handful of other red and purple states.
But thanks to Alabama, Chris Van Hollen’s 2018 just got a lot busier – and a lot more interesting.