The Democratic win Tuesday in Alabama’s U.S. Senate race may have seemed the most striking example yet of the bitterly negative tenor of American politics in the last several decades, as it has veered from one political pole to the other like a frenetic metronome.
Doug Jones’ victory over Republican Roy Moore by little more than 1 percentage point followed by only a year Donald Trump’s 28-point victory in the same state. The two men had almost nothing in common other than their shared good luck in running against a widely disliked member of the opposing party.
Trump’s victory in Alabama and similar states was in great part driven by animosity toward Democrat Hillary Clinton. Jones’ success rested on Democratic anger at Trump, reinforced by opposition to the controversial Republican candidate, Moore. The metronome needle that flew far to the right in 2016 swung back to the left in 2017.
But Jones now stands as an example of something harder to accomplish: an effort to find some middle ground amid the clashing and vitriolic emotions of partisans on both sides.
At his first news conference as senator-elect, Jones noted that he had received calls of congratulations from Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as well as from Democratic leaders and future colleagues of both parties.
Jones said that he was open to listening to everyone. To those for whom that didn’t fully register, he added a more explicit self-description.
“I’m a lot more center-of-the-road” politically, he said.
That is lonely territory in both parties, but recognizing it as vital could be essential if Democrats are to follow their definitive wins in 2017 with victories in their effort to gain control of one or — as some Democrats were contending in the dreamy hours after Tuesday’s win — both houses of Congress.
Not every district in which they need to compete is royal blue; many have repeatedly elected Republicans. The Democratic congressional majority elected in 2006, in response to anger at President George W. Bush, included many Democrats elected in such reddish districts; most of the seats were claimed back by Republicans in subsequent elections in which Democrats were derided as too liberal.
The limits of animosity as an organizing principle can be seen in the faltering experience Republicans have had in the last year. The party controlled both houses of Congress and the White House but have yet to pass substantial legislation backing up a Trump campaign promise.
The GOP spent the eight years of President Obama’s tenure voting scores of times against his signature healthcare program. But they spent so little time on their own alternative that they have yet to figure out how they would replace it.
Republicans now risk repeating that stumble by passing a tax plan with only GOP votes.
Now that they are in ascendancy, Democrats face the same crosscurrents: how to animate voters who hate Trump and yet also stand for something that goes beyond despising the incumbent. That requires something that Democrats have yet to concoct: a unified message.
Divisions have crept up in areas such as whether to support universal healthcare or a higher minimum wage. The wounds formed in the caustic presidential primaries last year have hardly been salved; indeed, factions continue to fight.
Democratic strategists continue to caution that simply being against Trump is not a sufficient message in many areas of the country that will need to turn their way.
“We’ve lost credibility in the Midwest, in places like Pennsylvania. The Democratic Party is seen as being out of touch, elitist, without any good ideas on economic or pocketbook issues,” said Jones’ campaign pollster, Paul Maslin. “We’re going to have to give people a sense we’ve turned the page and we’re not the same old same old.”
“We can’t just be anti-Trump,” he added.
With three victories in little more than a month, in gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey as well as the Alabama Senate race, Democrats have benefited from activism that caught even party veterans by surprise. Managing that is not always easy.
“Tides are important, but you still have to paddle,” said Obama’s former chief strategist, David Axelrod, issuing a caution amid expectations of a Democratic wave next year.
He cited Jones’ campaign as one that hewed to the values of the state in which it was being run, and not to the more liberal demands of national Democrats. The same attention to state views marked the successful November election of Ralph Northam as Virginia governor.
“There’s a lesson in that,” Axelrod said. “Every part of the country is different and it’s important to run a campaign that’s suited to a candidate’s own environment.”
So far, Republicans have helped Democrats by defining themselves in unpopular ways: They have backed a tax plan that may raise taxes on substantial parts of the middle class. They have spoken of cuts to Medicare and Social Security — immensely popular programs.
Those moves would hit voters in areas where Republicans locked up their White House and legislative victories.
Already, they have allowed Democrats to define themselves in opposition.
“The basic framework is Democrats represent the interests of the people and not the powerful,” said Tad Devine, a key strategist for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. “They’re concerned about preserving the progress we’ve made on healthcare and not falling backwards. Moving the economy forward for people who need not just a job, but a job that provides a living.”
“Being against Trump is not enough,” Devine added. “It’s going to take us a long way, though, and present us a lot of opportunities.”
Virginia represented a test case. Trump was such a dominant political figure throughout the election that the state’s candidates rarely had to talk about him. Instead Northam and Democratic legislative candidates focused on bread-and-butter issues like traffic, schools and the environment. Voters relished the focus on their own lives, and responded by giving Democrats historic wins.
Lala Wu, one of the founders of Sister District, a political advocacy organization that flooded Virginia with nearly 25,000 volunteers before the November balloting, said her volunteers found voters hungry for solutions instead of partisan ranting.
“We were sparked by the Trump election, but I think over the past year as we’ve learned more and taken action, we are now motivated by something that feels less like resistance and more like forward progress,” she said.
Trump will always be “an incredible catalyst” for activists who oppose him, she added, but that is not necessarily enough to convince typical voters.
“People care about the policies that affect their lives,” she said.
Barabak reported from Birmingham and Decker from Los Angeles.