For the second time, the extreme political right overplayed its hand and delivered a Republican U.S. Senate seat to Democrats. Next year, Mississippi could provide the third example that Americans are not as kooky as it sometimes appears.
Be clear about this: Last week’s special election win by Doug Jones in Alabama was not a victory for the political left. Also, it was in no way a repudiation of President Donald Trump, as many have boasted. It had nothing to do with Trump, who would win the presidency again today in Alabama as he would in Mississippi.
The result in Alabama was another cry from voters for solution-centered leadership in an era where the political playbook has been divide and conquer.
First came Indiana.
In 2012, Tea Party-backed Richard Mourdock challenged 32-year Sen. Richard Lugar for the Republican nomination. Lugar was a household name, but Mourdock branded him as out-of-touch, too much a part of the D.C. crowd. Worst of all, Lugar actually sometimes talked with Democrats. Bam! Sixty percent of voters bought Mourdock’s message and sent Lugar into retirement.
Next came the general election. Democrat Joe Donnelly, who had been serving in the U.S. House, was the alternative to Mourdock. He barely got enough votes but claimed a seat that had been Republican since 1976.
Indiana was sufficiently disgusted with politics-as-usual to dump staid and steady Lugar, but not willing to go with Mourdock who, among other positions, said that while rape is regrettable, if a pregnancy occurs it is God’s will.
Last week, the focus was on Alabama.
Trump’s selection of Jeff Sessions to serve as attorney general left Sessions’ seat open for a special election to fill the seat until 2020. Republicans nominated former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore over a more moderate, Trump-endorsed Republican.
Moore, even more than Mourdock, seemed like a shoo-in. He’s a major general in the culture war, well-known in Alabama for championing display of the Ten Commandments, ordering judges not to enforce the U.S. Supreme Court decision on issuing marriage licenses to same-gender couples, using epithets to describe Native Americans and Asians and using the term “perverts” to describe gays.
As general election day neared, The Washington Post reported that, in his single days, Moore demonstrated what most would consider a very unhealthy penchant for younger women, even girls. That rippled into a social media torrent that he was a lifelong serial sex offender, which wasn’t true.
In any event, Alabama followed the pattern in Indiana. By virtue of people not voting or writing in candidates (almost 2 percent did) plus solid black voter support for the Democrat, Jones, a former federal prosecutor, will serve the rest of Session’s term. Too, the Republican majority in the Senate becomes 51-49 instead of 52-48.
Mississippi is next.
Qualifying opens Jan. 2 for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Republican Roger Wicker, who is expected to seek his second full term. Wicker replaced former Sen. Trent Lott, who resigned in 2007. Lott had succeeded former U.S. Sen. John Stennis, the last Democrat from Mississippi in the Senate, on Jan. 3, 1989.
On the sidelines is state Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, who nearly unseated U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran in 2014 primary voting.
McDaniel met earlier this year with former Trump strategist Steve Bannon. Both have called for the ouster of “mainstream” Republicans, and both supported Moore in Alabama. McDaniel, attending Moore’s primary victory celebration, posted, “Happy for our sister state! This is just the beginning.”
For much of this year, emails seeking donations for McDaniel’s “senate race” (not specifying state or federal) have been frequent. In each, the theme has been “reclaim America from its enemies.” Wrapped in the state flag and Confederate monuments, the emails have mirrored Moore and Mourdock: The current state of federal affairs is horrible! But not much on how to fix things.
Most states, especially in the South, need help with infrastructure, education, economic development and health care. We don’t know whether McDaniel agrees with that. We do know he believes liberal women should pay for their own birth control and/or abortions.
McDaniel has not said whether he’ll challenge Wicker in the June 5 primary. If he does, though, the setup for a Democratic challenge is clear. Appeals to emotion have always been strong in politics. Culture warriors such as McDaniel and Moore get a lot of traction, but Alabama showed exploiting cultural division is not enough, or at least not quite enough, to win.
If McDaniel beats Wicker in the primary, a Democrat could win in Mississippi, too.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist.