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What Doug Jones's win means for Democrats

The incoming Democratic senator from Alabama leaves Republicans with just a one-seat edge in the Senate. But Jones may look to work across party lines as well.

John Bazemore/AP
Supporters of Democrat Doug Jones erupt in celebration during an election-night watch party in Birmingham, Ala. Mr. Jones won Alabama's special Senate election, beating back history, an embattled Republican opponent and President Donald Trump, who had endorsed GOP candidate Roy Moore despite a litany of sexual misconduct allegations against him.

Doug Jones, the Democratic lawyer who snatched a historic Senate win in Alabama on Tuesday, is a man of high ideals.

In 1977, when he was still in law school, the young Alabamian skipped contracts class with a friend to watch then-Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley prosecute the first trial of the 1963 bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham. The dynamite blast killed four African-American girls, a seminal event in the turbulent civil rights era.

Mr. Baxley faced a defense lawyer who was the son of a Birmingham city mayor – two titans going at it. “Baxley was masterful,” recalls Mr. Jones’s friend, Richard Mauk. “We were so impressed with that, and Doug was like, ‘That’s who I want to be, fighting for truth and justice.’ ”

Jones eventually fulfilled that dream as a US attorney in Alabama, reopening the Birmingham case and convicting Klansmen responsible for the bombing.

Now he’s about to live out another dream as the state’s next US senator – a goal with roots in a stint after law school as staff counsel to former Alabama Sen. Howell Heflin (D). Jones calls the late Senator Heflin “a gracious gentleman of impeccable character” who remains his role model today.

Marvin Gentry/Reuters
Incoming Alabama Senator Doug Jones (D) holds his granddaughter as he celebrates with supporters at the election night party in Birmingham, Ala.

Since allegations of sexual harassment against Republican Roy Moore surfaced in November, the Alabama Senate race, to most Americans, has been almost entirely about Judge Moore – the renegade justice twice removed from the state Supreme Court for not following federal rulings.

But now the focus shifts to Jones, the lesser-known victor who pulled out a narrow win in a deeply red state. Democrats are buoyed by his victory, seeing a potential path to retaking control of the Senate next year. And they are hopeful they can move Republicans to a more moderate agenda, given that the GOP will be down to a single-seat majority when Jones takes office in January.

“It means that things are looking good for us,” said a happy Sen. Charles Schumer, the Democratic minority leader in the Senate, speaking of the election outcome Wednesday morning. The New Yorker sees in Alabama “seeds” of the Democrats’ strong showing in Virginia’s statewide elections last month, when their energized base, Millennials, and suburban voters – particularly women – handed them the governorship and significant gains in the state legislature.

But this outlook also comes with caveats. The race in Alabama had a singular quality to it, defined by a seriously flawed candidate. And Jones, if he wants to stay in office beyond 2020, when he would next be up for reelection, will have to please his conservative constituents. Indeed, Jones campaigned as a political bridge-builder, saying he hoped to work with Republicans and President Trump. On Wednesday, the president called Jones to congratulate him and invited him to the White House.

“Jones is probably not going to be the most reliable Democratic vote on a lot of things, and Schumer is going to have to give him a pass on some things,” says Jennifer Duffy, a close watcher of the Senate at the independent Cook Political Report.

Flipping control 'mathematically possible'

Nevertheless, analysts such as Ms. Duffy now see a Democratic takeover of the Senate as a possibility in the 2018 midterms – albeit a slim one.

Democrats would have to hold all of their seats and take two more if they want to crack the tie-breaking advantage of Vice President Mike Pence. The map works against them: Ten Democrats are facing reelection next year in states that Mr. Trump won. Republicans look vulnerable in just three states: Arizona, Nevada, and Tennessee.

“It’s mathematically possible to put the majority in play,” says Duffy, adding: “I’m not saying they’re going to win.”

Jones, however, could provide a model on how to win in a red state.

He kept a disciplined focus on “kitchen-table” issues: health care, education, jobs, while blasting Moore as an “embarrassment” to Alabama. He also campaigned hard – on a recent Sunday, visiting nine black churches in one morning – and flooded the airwaves with ads, having vastly outraised his opponent.

And he stuck to his message as someone who came from a working-class family and will seek common ground – including with Trump – for more productive politics. That he is bland as sand made no difference – and in fact, may have proved an advantage among voters wearying of flame-throwing candidates and looking for a steadier hand.

“At the end of the day, this entire race has been about dignity and respect,” Jones told an ebullient victory crowd in Birmingham Tuesday night. “We’ve tried to make sure that this campaign was about finding common ground and reaching across and actually getting things done for the people.”

Whether that will actually happen as a result of having an Alabama Democrat in the Senate – for the first time in a quarter century – is hard to foresee. Senator Schumer called on Republicans Wednesday to hit “pause” on tax reform, wait for the seating of the senator-elect, and rework the plan in a bipartisan manner.

Full speed ahead 

That call was a whistle in the wind. Republicans are rushing to move their tax cuts to a final vote next week, announcing on Wednesday an agreement in principle between their House and Senate versions. Schumer said the plan, unpopular in public opinion polls, will “clobber” suburban voters because it does not retain full state and local taxes as a deduction.

The tax plan will come back to bite Republicans in the midterms, Schumer predicted. So could other issues, such as health care, internet access, and Trump himself.

Looking ahead, the White House has indicated that next it wants to tackle infrastructure – traditionally a bipartisan issue. But it all depends on the details. Jones would be unlikely to support it if it meant cutting social safety net programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security – as Hill Republicans are now signaling. That would not go down well in a state with one of the highest poverty rates in the country.

In the mold of red-state Democrats such as Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota or Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Jones might join Republicans from time to time on legislation specifically beneficial to his state. But neither of those two supported conservative goals like repealing the Affordable Care Act, or a tax cut plan that heavily favors corporations and the wealthy.

“He would be like Joe Manchin,” says Wayne Flynt, professor emeritus of history at Alabama's Auburn University. In practice, that might mean working to fix Obamacare, not do away with it.

As with anything bipartisan, it takes two to tango. Mark Meadows (R) of North Carolina, chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, told reporters Wednesday that conservatives such as himself will not be tacking to the center.

“We’ve been legislating to the middle for two decades, and that hasn’t gotten us too far,” he said, cautioning that “you can’t draw any conclusion from one race in Alabama.”

Still, that’s what pundits and politicians do best, and the elections in Virginia and Alabama at least hint at the possibility of more Democratic inroads in the South. On the flip side, there may be some Republican inroads coming in the north – for instance, if a Republican were to win resigning Democratic Sen. Al Franken’s seat in Minnesota in 2018.

Perhaps, says Duffy, “but the parties would have to tolerate it.” They would have to accept more moderates in their midst.

Correction: After Doug Jones's win, Democrats need two additional Senate seats to take the majority.

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