Democrats Might be Repeating their 2016 Mistakes in Alabama

polling-station-2643466_960_720With 24 hours to go until Alabamians vote in the season finale of “Who Wants to Elect a Pedophile?” it appears the closing argument from Democratic candidate Doug Jones and his backers boils down to, “Please, please don’t embarrass our state.”

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) made that pitch this weekend, as did Alabama’s senior senator Richard Shelby (R). Shelby, though not a Jones supporter, said he could not back GOP candidate and perpetual controversy machine Roy Moore because, “I think Alabama deserves better.”

As the Washington Post’s James Hohmnann recounts today, Alabama’s business and media elite are piling on, too, making the case that a Moore win would set back the state’s economy and reputation:

A pro-Jones Super PAC called Highway 31 has spent $3.6 million on the race. “Don’t let Alabama’s good name be tarnished,” a narrator says in the group’s final radio ad. “Don’t wash it all away. Don’t let Roy Moore become Alabama.”

Even Jimmy Kimmel is getting into the act, donating to Jones’ campaign. The allegations against Moore are so serious that it may end up turning this safe red seat into a blue one. But as they look ahead to 2018, are Democrats falling into the same trap they walked right into in last year’s Presidential election?

While it does not appear (yet) that Vladimir Putin is helping Roy Moore win, the similarities to 2016 are striking – and in a state that Donald Trump won by 28 points, those parallels matter.

In 2016, a sober-minded but generally uninspiring Democrat took on a flamboyant outsider with a penchant for controversy and a sexual harassment scandal – and lost. (Yes, it is unfair to call Jones – who prosecuted the 1963 Birmingham bombers – uninspiring. But is anybody in Alabama talking about Jones right now?)

Like Jones, Hillary Clinton had the support of the “establishment,” and numerous Republicans came out against Trump, warning that he would be a disaster as President. But that did not help with the kinds of swing voters who were drawn to Trump’s burn-the-place-down approach to politics. Many opted to stick it to the establishment. And if that worked for Trump in places like Michigan and Wisconsin, it may very well work for  Moore in Alabama.

Alabama, of course, is the state whose very existence is predicated upon giving elites the finger. It was fourth to secede from the Union in 1861. It also gave us George Wallace, and while Lynyrd Skynyrd is actually from Jacksonville, Florida (h/t Wikipedia), their ode to the Cotton State makes it clear that Alabamians don’t like being told what to do by northern folk.

Consequently, exhortations from business leaders, journalists, celebrities and even the state’s beloved senior senator – all card-carrying members of the Establishment – to oppose Moore may be for naught.

Or worse, may drive some Alabamians to choose Moore.  If you are a conservative Republican who is troubled by the accusations against Moore but nonetheless agrees with him on some issues, being told by elites that everything Moore (and you) stand for will tarnish Alabama’s good name might just be enough of a nudge to get you to pull his lever in the voting booth.

The Alabama race has one other parallel to the 2016 election: Democrats are making the race all about the Republican candidate. And as a result, the Democratic candidate is not making a compelling case for his election. Does anybody in Alabama know what Doug Jones will do for the economy, or national security? Other than being “not-Roy Moore,” it’s not clear what he stands for. That was Hillary’s problem as well. Telling voters that Trump would embarrass our country did not resonate with people worried about pocketbook issues.

Of course, nobody can predict how the election will turn out. And when you go up against a candidate as troubled as Roy Moore, making the election all about Roy may be sufficient.  But this race is, arguably, exceptional. As Democrats start to ponder 2018 and beyond, they need to remember that elections are won or lost on the issues that matter to the voters.