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5 Takeaways From The Stunning Alabama Senate Election

Democrat Doug Jones greets supporters before his victory speech Tuesday night. Jones defeated controversial Republican Roy Moore to become the first Democratic senator elected from Alabama in 25 years.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
Democrat Doug Jones greets supporters before his victory speech Tuesday night. Jones defeated controversial Republican Roy Moore to become the first Democratic senator elected from Alabama in 25 years.

In Washington and around the country, Democrats and Republicans are trying to make sense of Doug Jones' stunning upset in the Alabama Senate race.

Jones' victory in a state that hadn't sent a Democrat to Washington in almost 30 years was even more shocking than when Republican Scott Brown won the late Ted Kennedy's seat in a Massachusetts special election in 2010.

Here are 5 takeaways from Tuesday's political earthquake:

1. The blue wave looks real

Democrats have a playbook for 2018. It worked in purple/light blue Virginia and, with some tweaks, it worked in deep red Alabama. Democrats have finally figured out how to get their base voters out in nonpresidential elections. Big turnout among minorities, young people, single women and college-educated suburbanites was the key to Democrats' wins in both states.

In Virginia, getting the Democratic coalition out was enough to win, even though Democrats didn't make inroads into the Trump vote in nonmetro areas. But in Alabama, where there just aren't enough Democrats, Jones had to do something extra — he had to get enough Republican voters (and Republican-leaning independents) to cross over and vote for him. He did, focusing on moderate, Chamber of Commerce Republicans, who found Roy Moore embarrassing and damaging to the image of their state even before sexual-misconduct allegations surfaced.

When it comes to enthusiasm, Democrats have the edge. President Trump seems to fire up Democrats more than his own voters. In Alabama, Jones wanted to make sure African-Americans were at least 25 percent of the electorate. They ended up at 29 percent, according to the exit polls.

Jones also made important inroads with the white vote. In 2012, Mitt Romney won white, college-educated women in Alabama by 55 points; this week, Moore won them by only 11, according to the exits.

Overall, Jones got 30 percent of the white vote. In the Deep South, that's the holy grail for Democrats and really hard to achieve. (In 2012, Barack Obama got just 15 percent of the white vote in Alabama.)

Democrats are hoping this fired-up coalition will help them make gains in the House, Senate and governors' races all over the country next year.

2. A silver lining for Republicans

The bad news for Republicans is that Moore lost. The good news for Republicans is that Moore lost.

Sure, their razor-thin majority in the Senate just got one vote smaller, but now they won't have to answer why they have an accused child molester in their midst. They won't have to wrestle with the question of whether to seat Moore, investigate him or expel him. No Republican in the Senate was looking forward to serving alongside Moore, who has said homosexuality should be illegal, argued that Muslims shouldn't be able to serve in Congress and spoken favorably of slavery.

Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, who tried hard to keep Moore out of Congress, came out a big winner.

3. Trump lost — again

Trump has been repudiated by the voters of Alabama twice. His selected candidates lost the primary and the general election. Even in a state he won by 28 points, Trump doesn't seem able to get his voters to vote for anyone other than him — even when it's an anti-establishment candidate like Moore, who you could argue was a Trumpist long before Trump showed up.

Trump's support is slipping — even in Alabama. He got 62 percent of the vote in Alabama last year, but exit polls showed only 48 percent of voters there approve of his job performance. After toying with staying neutral in the race, he decided to go all-in for Moore. He dismissed the advice of Republican establishment figures, like McConnell, and took the advice of his former political adviser Steve Bannon.

He endorsed Moore, said his denials of sexual misconduct should be heard, held a rally for Moore (just over the state line in Florida, so as not to produce any photos of him standing side by side with Moore), made robocalls and sent out pro-Moore, anti-Jones tweets.

None of it worked.

4. Bannon looks less threatening

The simmering civil war inside the GOP continues. But Bannon, the president's populist political guru, is taking all the fire after Tuesday.

"Not only did Steve Bannon cost us a critical Senate seat in one of the most Republican states in the country, but he also dragged the president of the United States into his fiasco," said Steven Law, who runs a superPAC controlled by McConnell.

Another Republican operative said you could have taken any name out of the phone book in Alabama, except Moore's, put an R next to it and that person would have won by double digits.

Bannon has promised to back challengers to every sitting Republican senator up in 2018 except Ted Cruz. After Tuesday, it will be easier for incumbents and establishment candidates to fight back against those challenges.

5. Governing just got harder

The Republicans were already having a hard time showing the public that they can be a governing party as well as a majority party, although the tax bill still looks like it will pass this month (Jones won't be seated in the Senate until after the first of the year).

Once Jones arrives, the math gets more difficult. Republicans will have a 51-49 majority and will be able to lose only one vote. That means moderate Republicans, like Susan Collins, Jeff Flake, Bob Corker and John McCain, will have much more leverage.

On legislation that needs 60 votes, Republicans will now need nine Democrats, and that's not happening without major concessions.

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Corrected: December 12, 2017 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous version of this story misspelled a reference to Mitch McConnell's last name as Mcconell.
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.