Alabama is an important sideshow

Judging from the headlines, the Republican party is sharply split between its establishment led by Senate Leader Mitch McConnell and its insurgents led by Steve Bannon or maybe Donald Trump. Currently dividing them are the accusations of sexual harassment against Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for the US Senate in a special (out of cycle) election December 12. Trump, himself a self-confessed sexual harasser, is silent, but Bannon is supporting Moore and claiming the accusations are false. McConnell says he believes “the women” and wants Moore to drop his candidacy.

But nationally Republicans are more unified than the headlines would suggest. In the House, they have approved a dramatic decrease in taxes on business and the rich. The Senate version of the bill differs, but only by degrees. The overall impact would be in the same direction. Republicans in both houses as well as the White House are desperate to pass something. Only defection of a few senators might stop them. If the tax bill passes, Moore’s vow to remove McConnell as Senate Majority Leader is unlikely to succeed, at least not until the new Congress is sworn in January 2019. If the tax bill fails, McConnell will be in trouble whether or not Moore is in the Senate.

The Alabama contest is thus a side-show, but still important from the Democratic perspective. It could help decide the Senate majority. Alabama is a solidly Republican state these days, because of white votes. Blacks vote heavily for Democrats and represent 25% of the population, which is not enough at normal turnouts to defeat a racist would-be evangelical like Roy Moore. Moore can no longer be replaced on the ballot for next month’s election, so if it comes off as scheduled McConnell’s only hope is a write-in candidacy, likely of the more conventional candidate Moore defeated in the Republican primary. That would put two Republican candidates in the race, splitting the white vote between them and enhancing the Democrats’ odds.

McConnell’s other option is to convince the governor to postpone the election, giving the Republicans time to dump Moore and come up with another candidate. I think that still likely, but the governor is reluctant to do it, not least because the election has already been postponed once. Moore and his supporters, who are strong among Alabama whites, will want it to go ahead as scheduled. Postponement won’t improve his chances.

The Democratic candidate is Doug Jones. His biggest claim to fame is the successful prosecutions in 2001 and 2002 of Ku Klux Klan members for the murder of four black girls in Birmingham in 1963. His campaign for the Senate has focused on jobs, health, and education, pretty much ignoring the sexual harassment accusations against his opponent. Jones is running better than a Democrat would normally in Alabama these days, but polling there is sketchy.

Roy Moore could win, tarnishing the Republican brand nationally, bringing a die-hard and controversial Republican opponent of McConnell into the Senate, and thereby easing the Democrats’ path to a Senate majority next year. Or he could lose, also easing the Democrats’ path to a Senate majority. No wonder the national democratic leadership is trying to stand aside and let this sideshow play out. They would gain nothing from getting more involved.

Alabama’s black voters can help decide this contest, provided they turn out in record numbers for a candidate who has been a vigorous advocate of civil rights, not to mention his other issues and his opponent’s sexual misbehavior. Some whites may be tempted to sit this one out: do you really want to vote for a guy who was barred from a shopping mall in his thirties because he was harassing teenage girls? If the election goes ahead as scheduled, black voters have a chance to send an important message in the deep South: we count.

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