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Supporters of Doug Jones celebrate his victory over Roy Moore in Birmingham, December 12, 2017. (CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

By Joan Walsh — 

There was healing justice in the way the vote rolled in from Alabama Tuesday night, as Democrat Doug Jones defeated racist, ultra-right, deposed judge and accused child molester Roy Moore, in an unexpected victory that put an Alabama Senate seat in Democratic hands for the first time in 25 years.

From Selma to Montgomery to Birmingham, those citadels of the civil rights movement, as the hours passed we learned that black voters exceeded their turnout for Barack Obama in 2012, to deliver Jones the victory. Meanwhile, in Shelby County, the majority white, suburban Republican county whose challenge to the Voting Rights Act wound up gutting it in 2013 — you remember Shelby County vs. Eric Holder? — Moore underperformed woefully. Donald Trump got 75 percent there; Moore only 56. As the vote for Jones rolled in, that vivid geographic landscape reminded us of all that we’ve fought to achieve, and all that remains at stake.

Progressives rarely get so much to savor, literally or symbolically. The bottom line is that black voters saved the country once again. And they did it on the first night of Hanukkah — a sad blow to Moore’s “Jew” lawyer, as the Republican’s bigoted wife Kayla Moore put it, at a disastrous Monday night rally that is more likely to have cost Moore votes than won them.

Jones, the man who finally successfully prosecuted the Klansmen who murdered those four little girls at Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, managed to defeat a man who preyed on young girls, in ruby red Alabama. No one saw this coming, until maybe a few days ago, but even then: The optimistic among us were still girded for a narrow Jones defeat, a moral victory that nonetheless couldn’t advance a moral agenda. (Yes I predicted a Jones victory on “AMJoy” on Sunday, but only because I had no idea who would win, and I couldn’t bring myself to stomp on the hopes of the folks working so hard for Jones in Alabama this week.)

We will be examining exactly how Jones won in the next few weeks, but we know a few things already. There was an unprecedented voter turnout operation in this red state, with contributions from new groups as well as the Democratic National Committee. But as Jones consultant Joe Trippi told the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, they had no idea how it would work, since it had never been used before. Apparently, it worked well. A roster of groups devoted to black turnout, from Black PAC to #BlackVotersMatter to the NAACP, plus a web of small Alabama groups, pioneered new approaches that will be studied and possibly replicated in 50 states come November 2018. Once again, though, let’s take a moment to thank black women, who supported Jones 98-2.

The main takeaway is what we learned last month in Virginia: You can’t win if you don’t play. Former GOP Senator Jeff Sessions, for now Donald Trump’s attorney general, ran unopposed in 2014. Let that sink in. Doug Jones had to be cajoled to step up, and in his victory speech he thanked his friends and advisors who demanded he do so. Let’s hope Democrats commit to a 50-state strategy once again. The party ought to take over the infrastructure of Jones’s winning campaign, and try to use it to bolster its support in the state house and senate and Congress too. Congresswoman Terry Sewell, an indefatigable Jones backer on national television, needs some company in Washington.

We may never know how much the Washington Post’s well-reported story on the way Moore preyed on four teenaged girls when he was in his 30s ultimately mattered (another five women came out after that and accused Moore of much the same things). The exit polls offered conflicting results on that question, but they delivered one important data point: Two-thirds of women with children voted for Doug Jones. Frustrated Republicans like Senator Richard Shelby also deserve credit: almost 23,000 people chose a write-in candidate, as Shelby did; Jones only won by 21,000.

Finally, let’s observe that despite the bleating of national pundits who insisted Jones would be doing better if he wasn’t pro-choice, the Alabama Democrat won without backing away from his pro-choice position at all. Even on election night, there were suggestions from cable hosts and crestfallen Republicans that Jones will have to vote with the GOP sometimes, to keep his seat in 2020. Nobody entirely knows how Jones won; why do they think they know how he might lose? African Americans, mothers and millennials made up his base. They’ll be there next time, too — if they’re inspired.

Once it was clear he’d defeated Moore, Jones made a victory speech that was magnanimous, sometimes rambling and often moving, as he periodically choked up over his win. But he closed with a rousing demand for his future fellow Democratic senators: “Go ahead and fund that CHIP program before I get up there!” he yelled, talking about the Child Health Insurance Program that expired two months ago and hasn’t been renewed. Jones noted that 150,000 kids will be uninsured in Birmingham alone.

Let’s hope they listen. But if they don’t, a Democrat is headed to the Senate from Alabama. He’ll be a vote to renew the CHIP program and defend others. Republicans are going to have to learn from what happened December 12. It would be nice if they took away the right lesson – that their days are numbered if they continue on their current white nationalist, corporate-agenda peddling path. If they don’t, progressives will have a lot to celebrate in November 2018.

Joan Walsh, The Nation’s national-affairs correspondent, is the author of What’s the Matter With White People? Finding Our Way in the Next America.


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.