How big a deal is Democrat Doug Jones’ victory in the Alabama U.S. Senate race? Pretty big for the country. What does it say about next year’s elections in Arkansas? Probably not that much.
It’s a big deal because it decreases the Republicans’ Senate majority to 51-49, meaning they have to keep all but one senator in line if they ever want to get anything done.
And after next November, it may be part of an even bigger deal – if Democrats could somehow take back the U.S. Senate. That’s a tall order because the Democratic caucus must defend 26 seats next year, 10 of them in states won by President Trump in 2016. Republicans are defending only eight seats. But the Democrats’ grabbing an unexpected win in the South changes the math and makes it easier for them to recruit candidates and raise money. Meanwhile, they must flip 24 seats to control the U.S. House.
President Trump’s election is probably the best thing that’s happened to Democrats in a while, just as President Obama’s election helped Republicans. The party that loses the presidency usually wins in the midterms anyway, but Democratic voters are especially motivated by Trump.
History offers a guide. In 1982, Republicans lost 26 House seats while gaining one Senate seat in President Reagan’s first midterm elections. Twelve years later, Democrats lost 52 House seats and eight Senate seats in President Clinton’s first midterms. Republicans bucked that trend in 2002 under President George W. Bush, gaining eight House seats and two in the Senate. But that may have been because the nation was at war in Afghanistan and still looking to Bush for leadership after the Sept. 11 attacks. Four years later, Republicans lost 30 House seats and six in the Senate. In 2010, Democrats lost 63 House seats and six in the Senate under President Obama.
Did I mention that, if 24 seats flip, Democrats control the House?
Alabama’s election result had more to do with the candidate, Roy Moore, than the climate. There were plenty of red flags surrounding him even before this year’s allegations arose, and many Republicans are relieved he lost.
But, notwithstanding that one election, the trend is looking similar to other midterm elections. Since last November, Democrats have picked up some victories – where they were expected in New Jersey and Virginia, and where they were not. Last month in neighboring Oklahoma, a 26-year-old lesbian Democratic candidate, Allison Ikley-Freeman, defeated her Republican opponent in a special election in a state Senate district that President Trump won by almost 30 points last year. Unexpected things happen in special elections, but still, Oklahoma?
Could something unexpected happen in Arkansas next year as well? It seems much less likely. The most high-profile statewide race next year is for governor (for now), and it’s hard to see Asa Hutchinson being derailed by a sex scandal, or any other kind. Arkansas is still in the midst of its Republican revolution, and the momentum is still on that party’s side. The demographics also are much less favorable to Democrats here than in Alabama. Twenty-seven percent of Alabamans are African-American, compared to less than 16 percent of Arkansans, and African-Americans proved the difference in Jones’ victory.
While Arkansas Democrats must be encouraged by recent results, translating that encouragement into electoral success starts with finding candidates. Last year, Democrats didn’t even compete in three of the four U.S. House races; they already have one candidate or more in all four this time. On the other hand, they struggled to find a candidate for governor until newcomer Jared Henderson finally took the plunge this week, and they still haven’t found one for lieutenant governor or attorney general. Many state legislative races still only have one candidate, and most are Republicans.
You can’t win if you don’t run, and if you do run, you just might win – maybe not this time, but eventually. Republicans ran the same candidate for Senate in 1986, attorney general in 1990, and governor in 2006, and he lost every time.
His name is Asa Hutchinson. They call him "governor" now.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.