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December 14, 2017

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Control of Senate could hinge on Alabama vote

The fast-approaching Dec. 12 special election in Alabama has now become the gateway to which party will control the next Senate majority.

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way, but GOP nominee Roy Moore’s collapse after being accused of sexual impropriety 38 years ago has opened the door for Democratic nominee Doug Jones to steal what should be a rock-solid Republican seat.

Before the Moore implosion, the Republicans were a lock to retain Senate control. The election cycle favors them to the point that Democrats must protect 25 of the 33 regular Class I seats, and only two of the eight GOP defense states are even realistically vulnerable. Therefore, before Alabama, if the Democrats converted both the seat of Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., the now-open Arizona position held by Jeff Flake, a Republican who’s retiring, while protecting all 25 of their defensive states, the best they could do was to force Republicans into a 50-50 tie. In that scenario, Vice President Mike Pence would cast the tie-breaking vote, thus keeping his party in the majority.

Should Moore lose Alabama, the equation dramatically changes. Democrats gaining this seat with a Jones victory would create a path to the Senate majority and put the once secure Republican chamber within reach. With Alabama in the Democratic column — and being there through the 2020 election — converting Arizona and Nevada would be enough to give the liberal party a 51-49 edge, and thus majority control.

With so much at stake, it is surprising to see Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., seemingly so willing to cast Alabama away. Once the sexual impropriety allegations were made against the former Alabama state Supreme Court chief justice, McConnell and other Republican senators wasted little time running to microphones and cameras to denounce him, and announcing they were pulling his national party support. The leadership is still hurting from losing the party nomination battle to Moore, as their candidate, appointed Sen. Luther Strange, badly failed to inspire a majority of Republican primary and run-off voters.

Alabama Republican officials and rank-and-file party activists along with President Donald Trump, by and large, reacted differently and remain generally supportive of Moore. McConnell’s actions are even more curious when looking at the polls. Before the allegations became public, Moore held a consistent double-digit lead. After the stories broke, the numbers almost reversed with Jones moving in front by an 8 percentage point mean average. Now, however, the race could actually be moving back toward Moore. Three mid-November large-sample surveys suggest that the former judge has rebounded to a small lead despite having little in the way of campaign funding.

As the candidates turn for the political finish line, the Democrats and Jones have the resources to dominate message delivery. But they must walk a fine line in order to convince the Alabama electorate that having a Democrat represent them isn’t as bad as electing the morally questionable Moore.

The party leaders have been very quiet, as have rank-and-file Democratic senators. None have gone public to bash Moore, leaving that to Republicans since the latter group has once again morphed into self-destruct mode. Both sides know that outside influence from Washington would likely hamper the candidate the D.C. crowd supports, so we’ve seen little in the way of Super PAC or national party activity from either side.

Understanding this background, Alabama voters will be left to decide the ultimate fate of the two candidates in a special election. What happens is really anybody’s guess. Polling is fickle in the specials because turnout is typically low, and often underestimates the rural hard-core conservative support, e.g., how Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, etc., performed for President Trump.

If a similar dynamic is again present in Alabama, the former judge could still win, and McConnell will then face having Roy Moore in the Senate and part of his party conference, apparently a nightmare he dreads more than losing the Republican majority.

Should the urban and suburban voters, along with a large African-American participation, vote in strong numbers and score the upset for Jones, the Democrats would position themselves to do what was once thought unthinkable: taking the Senate majority in 2018.

Their task is formidable even against a wounded candidate, however. Looking at the turnout in the Republican primary and run-off versus that of the Democrats, for example, we saw more than 481,000 people vote in the GOP run-off, a turnout higher than what was present in the original primary, versus just 165,006 individuals who chose the Democratic Party. This means a high number of Republican voters must be persuaded to pick the Democrat in this election.

Regardless of how the Senate cycle ends, the path to maintaining or capturing the new majority begins in this Alabama special election almost a year before the regular mid-term vote. The stakes are high, and though Republicans appear to be handing them this seat on a silver platter, questions abound as to whether the Democrats can actually claim the prize.

Jim Ellis analyzes election data for major corporations, associations and legislative advocacy firms. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.