On Tuesday, Alabama voters elected Democrat Doug Jones to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions in a move that overturned a generation of Republican victories in the deep red state. Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore by a little more than 1 percentage point in an election that saw polling figures swing wildly back and forth, particularly as Moore faced multiple sexual misconduct allegations. As of Wednesday evening, Moore hadn’t conceded, citing the narrow margin of victory.
Jones’ victory—as well as other notable Democratic victories this year in Virginia and New Jersey—further signals the challenges Republicans face going into next year’s midterm elections, according to Northeastern political science professor Costas Panagopoulos.
An all-time low presidential approval rating, as well as the historical trend of a president’s party losing seats in the midterms are both factors stacked against Republicans, he said.
“The implication we’re seeing not only in Alabama, but in Virginia and New Jersey as well, is that the president is taking a toll on his party,” Panagopoulos said.
On the other hand, he added, the recent strength of the economy could play in Republicans’ favor.
What was also made clear in this election is the importance of choosing exactly the right candidate. Jones is a more moderate Democrat, Panagopoulos said, “in part because he needs to be in order to effectively represent the state of Alabama.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see him reaching across the aisle to vote with Republicans on certain issues if he wants to effectively represent his constituents,” he said.
In that sense, Moore represents the total opposite. Candidates with more extreme political leanings, like Moore, tend to perform well in state primaries, but they generally win a smaller share of general election voters, Panagopoulos said.
“In this election, Doug Jones let his record and his character speak for itself, and we’re living in a time when voters might be skeptical of more colorful characters,” Panagopoulos said. “For many voters, the lesson learned after 2016 was that the more bombastic candidates don’t necessarily make for the best elected officials.”
Jones’ victory was as much a testament to the impact morality played in this election as it was a referendum on Trump, who threw his support behind Moore after Moore won the state’s primary, Panagopoulos said.
“Trump loomed very large in this election,” Panagopoulos said. “Because many of Moore’s shortcomings reminded voters about parallels with the president himself, the two became intertwined such that the president couldn’t be critical of Roy Moore on the basis of sexual improprieties because he, himself, has been subject to similar allegations.”
At least 15 women have come forward with such accusations against Trump since he announced his presidential bid.
“Trump’s defense of—and support of—Roy Moore was also a defense of himself; it was part of a larger narrative Trump is creating for himself,” Panagopoulos said.
With or without Trump, though, the accusations against Moore made him an uncertain choice for many Alabamians.
“I think it’s fair to say people were voting against Roy Moore here,” Panagopoulos said. “That said, Doug Jones still had to offer something to voters to win. In part, what he offered was a stronger moral character, which was one of the top concerns for voters in this race, according to exit polls.”
He added: “Voters want to elect representatives who reflect their positions on issues and who share their ideological views, but they don’t want to send people to Washington who they perceive as morally corrupt. Roy Moore brought a lot of baggage with him to this race, so he was always going to be fighting an uphill battle despite Alabama’s strong conservative voting history.”
The results were also a function of who voted, Panagopoulos said. Noting the slim margin of victory as well as intense support for Jones from black and other historically liberal-leaning communities, he said the allegations against Moore “probably affected how many people voted rather than how they voted.”