Doug Jones became the first Democrat to win a statewide office in Alabama since 2008, defeating Republican Roy Moore, 49.9% to 48.4%, in a special election Tuesday to fill the Senate seat held by Jeff Sessions before he became Donald Trump's Attorney General. Democrats haven't won a Senate race in Alabama since 1992, back when GOP. Sen. Richard Shelby was still a Democrat (he switched parties in 1994).
The Alabama Senate special election had plenty of unique characteristics: a GOP nominee accused of pursuing relationships with teenage girls when he was in his 30s, who was already a controversial figure in the state, a vote that was held in mid-December, and a Democratic nominee, in the South no less, who outspent his GOP rival by a margin of roughly five-to-one in the general election phase of the campaign.
Favorable trends for Democrats
But the Alabama results also reflect trends in prior elections like the race for governor in Virginia this year that could bode well for Democrats in the upcoming 2018 mid-term elections when control of the House of Representatives, and now the Senate, will be in play.
This emerging Democratic advantage includes energized support from non-white voters, elevated party turnout in metropolitan areas and stronger performance in well-educated suburban communities. At the same time, Republican turnout in white rural counties that gave a significant boost to Donald Trump in 2016 has lagged in two key contests, the Virginia gubernatorial election and Tuesday's Alabama Senate race.
Like Ralph Northam in Virginia, Jones was able to persuade moderate voters in major metro areas and well-educated suburban communities to support the Democrat. And turnout in these areas was higher than in other parts of both states. At the same time, turnout in white rural areas lagged. In both states, non-white voters turned out in greater numbers than they typically do in non-presidential election years.
African-American turnout played an important role in Jones' victory. Of the 20 counties that saw their turnout rise in comparison to the 2014 midterm elections in Alabama, an election comparable in size to the Senate special election, half were rural counties in the state's agricultural "Black Belt" where African Americans make up between 59% of registered voters (Hale) to 82% (Greene). Based on unofficial but complete returns in those counties, Jones received between 69% of the vote (Hale) to 88% (Greene and Macon).
Four of the highest turnout counties contain state's four largest cities: Jefferson County has Birmingham, Montgomery County is home to the state capital, Montgomery, Madison County has Huntsville and Mobile County has Mobile. Both Jefferson and Montgomery counties also have high numbers of African-American voters, 41% and 57%, respectively. Madison, an engineering and research hub with the US Army Redstone Arsenal and Marshall Space Flight Center, has fewer African-American voters, 23%. What it has in abundance is well-off and well-educated voters: it ranks second in all of the state's 67 counties for college-educated adults, 39%, and the median household income of the county's residents is the second-highest in the state. Jefferson and Montgomery counties also have the fourth and fifth highest share of four-year college educated voters, roughly 31% each.
Jones carried Jefferson with 68% and won Montgomery with 72%. Both of those are relative Democratic strongholds and Moore has never had much of a following in those major metro counties. In the 2012 election for the chief justice of the state Supreme Court (which Moore narrowly won), Democrat Bob Vance won Jefferson and Montgomery with 63% and 71%, respectively.
Jones' victory in Madison County stands out. While Hillary Clinton carried both Jefferson and Montgomery in 2016, Trump carried Madison 55%-38%. His margin over Clinton was more 26,000 votes. Jones flipped the county winning 57%-40% over Moore. His margin of more than 19,000 votes in Madison is almost equal to his current statewide margin of 20,715 votes.
Mobile County is one where the median household income and the percentage of college-educated voters are lower than the state average. Some 35% of its voters are African-Americans. Like Madison, this was a county Moore lost in his 2012 state Supreme Court election. But Trump won Mobile 55%-42%. And it had to be satisfying for Democrats to see Jones prevail here 56%-42%.
Increased turnout in metro areas
Taken together, the four big metro counties -- Jefferson, Montgomery, Madison and Mobile -- which have urban cores and suburbs, were by far the biggest contributor to Jones' victory. His combined margin over Moore in these big four was almost 149,000 votes. In 21 largely rural Black Belt counties, Jones' margin over Moore was just over 37,000.
In 13 other suburban and exurban counties, places like Shelby outside of Birmingham, Limestone next door to Huntsville and Baldwin adjacent to Mobile, Jones only lost by about 57,000 votes. In the 29 white rural counties, all won by Moore, his margin over Jones was only 108,000 votes.
And how did these groupings fare in terms of turnout? The big four metro counties combined saw their turnout of registered voters increase by roughly 6.5% above the 2014 midterm levels. Turnout in the 13 other suburban and exurban counties was essentially even with 2014's levels. In the 21 rural Black Belt counties, turnout was actually down slightly overall. But in those 29 white rural counties, turnout was down 5.4%.
But the picture from Alabama, like the one from Virginia, is an ominous one for Republicans as they prepare for 2018.