A few things made Doug Jones’ win in Alabama’s special Senate election a reality: African-Americans, women and millennials showed up to the polls and thousands of Republicans opted to stay home or cast write-in votes for someone other than Roy Moore.
That’s according to Joe Trippi, a senior strategist for the Jones campaign, who told Lagniappe clearly that if any of those hadn’t panned out, the results would have likely been different.
Yet, despite a campaign that was polarizing in a number of ways, Trippi believes it was Jones’ mantra of “common ground” and “compromise” that brought the elements of his victory together on election day.
“Today, you’ve got this sort of national politics that has become so tribal to a point both sides are wary of compromise,” Trippi said. “[Jones] wanted to be out there in the face of that polzaring wind, talking about common ground and working across the aisle. The big question, even inside the campaign, was can you do that and still get the kind of turnout you need from your base?”
The answer appears to be yes.
Jones managed to secure a majority in the tightly contested race and is headed to Washington as Alabama’s first Democratic U.S. Senator in 25 years. Trippi, who’s worked campaigns around the country, said the team behind Jones was always aware of what it would take to get him there.
A successful campaign in Alabama couldn’t cater to Democrats alone, which explains why Jones’ tone in speeches and advertisements often straddled the party line. He focused on “kitchen table issues” with a broader appeal such as jobs and health care, while playing lightly into issues conservative voters look for such as for the 2nd Amendment and Christian values.
In today’s hyperpartisan political climate, where compromise is sometimes viewed with disdain, Trippi said “there was no certainty” in how well that message would resonate, especially in a state President Donald Trump swept just a year earlier with 28 percentage points to spare.
If there were doubts, though, Trippi said the message of the campaign remained constant because it was the same message Jones had been repeating from the beginning.
“There was an inherent risk in it, but that message came from Doug Jones. He knew Alabama, and he believed Alabama wanted to move forward and pull together,” Trippi added. “It’s easy to deliver a message when a candidate actually believes in it.”
According to Trippi, one way the campaign tried to avoid partisanship was to keep things focused on Jones and Alabama, not Washington, the Senate or the GOP’s slim majority.
He said that’s one reason why the campaign limited the involvement of national Democratic figures where it could, with exceptions for campaign stops with former Vice President Joe Biden and others, plus a robocall to voters recorded by former President Barack Obama.
However, with a Senate seat on the line and an ambitious legislative agenda, Trump frequently brought Washington to Alabama through public endorsements of Moore, a rally in nearby Pensacola and tweets that attempted to paint Jones as a “Schumer/Pelosi puppet.”
“When the [campaign] becomes nationalized, Republicans tend to say, ‘Oh yea, I’m a Republican,’ and people go to their corners. Our whole campaign was against that,” Trippi said. “We tried to avoid it, but you can’t control Mitch McConnell or Donald Trump — they’re going to try to nationalize the race, and every time they did, it worked. For a few days, we’d see a change in our polling.”
Despite chatter in the media suggesting a win in deep-red Alabama was very unlikely, Trippi said there were signs along the way that a “sizable group of Republicans” might be open to a moderate Democrat campaigning on “common ground.”
Given Moore’s political history and the fractured GOP primary that put him on the ballot, Trippi said some of their support could have had as much to do with the opponent as it did Jones.
“The reality is Roy Moore did more to raise money for us than anybody out there,” Trippi said. “I remember the day after the runoff the phone was ringing off the hook with Republicans calling in to donate money to Doug Jones. For me, that was one of the most stunning moments in the entire campaign.”
Of course, what put the election in the forefront of national news was the fallout from a bombshell report published by the The Washington Post in November that launched a series of sexual misconduct allegations against Moore dating back to the 1970s.
Over the final month of the race, nine women accused Moore of behavior ranging from unwanted romantic attention to outright sexual assault. He denied all the allegations.
Trippi said he remembers when the story came out by what was going on with the campaign at the time. It was the end of a run of TV spots focusing on “compromise and civility” and Jones had just pulled into “a statistical dead heat” with Moore by the campaign’s own polling.
The campaign had “no idea that story was in the works” before it was published, according to Trippi. He said it also didn’t change their approach to the race much, other than highlighting conservatives such as Sen. Richard Shelby who ultimately retracted their support for Moore.
If anything, Trippi said the scandal was somewhat of a distraction, and one that quickly brought on the kind of vitriolic partisanship the campaign had worked hard to steer clear of.
“In a lot of ways, it really disrupted the race,” he said. “It was no longer about a guy who prosecuted the Ku Klux Klan for the 16th Street [Baptist Church] bombing versus a guy who had been removed from office twice. In a strange way, the whole race became: Are these allegations true or not?”
Since the election, much ink has been spilled over what Jones’ victory means for Republicans in the 2018 midterms. Some have suggested the upset could be a sign of an edge for Democrats, but that’s not what Trippi took away from the campaign or Jones’ success in Alabama.
“There is a hunger for someone who casts aside the hostile and ugly politics of Washington and rises above party to seek common ground, and I think that’s the big message for 2018 to both parties,” he said. “That’s the message Alabama sent the country. Whether Washington gets that message or not is something else entirely.”