The next senator from Alabama will be a Democrat.
Doug Jones bested Republican Roy Moore, handing Democrats an unlikely victory in a deep red state and Donald Trump stronghold.
"Alabama has been at a crossroads," Jones said. "We have been at crossroads in the past. And unfortunately we have usually taken the wrong fork. Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, you took the right road."
Jones, speaking to an ecstatic crowd in Birmingham following a narrow victory, said his campaign had been about "dignity and respect," as well as "common courtesy and decency." (Moore was not conceding defeat as of Tuesday night, despite results showing a lead of 1.7%, or more than 22,000 votes, for Jones.)
It was a result that seemed all but impossible even 10 months ago, when Jeff Sessions was confirmed as US attorney general, vacating his Senate seat. But by the time election night rolled around, it was clear Senate Republicans were not going to have a good result no matter who won. Either they would soon admit to their ranks a man accused of sexual assault and molesting a minor, or they would cede the seat to a Democrat, leaving a Republican Senate that has already struggled to pass legislation with just a single-vote majority.
"I am truly overwhelmed," Jones told the crowd, after taking the stage to Bon Jovi's "We Weren't Born to Follow" as red, white, and blue confetti cascaded down on the jubilant crowd. He stood onstage next to Rep. Terri Sewell, who will soon no longer be Alabama's only Democrat in Congress, and Charles Barkley.
"This changes everything," said Frannie James, an attendee at Jones' election night party, sporting a "Doug Freakin' Jones" shirt and grinning from ear to ear. "2018 is ours."
"I mean, I hoped for it, and sometimes I would believe it would happen. But no, not really," she said, when asked if she was surprised by the result. "It's unbelievable in a lot of ways."
Faced with two undesirable options, some Republicans felt they'd dodged a bullet.
"Never have so many Republicans been so relieved by a Democrat’s victory," one Republican operative texted BuzzFeed News when the Associated Press called the race for Jones.
Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, who donated $100 to Jones' campaign in the lead-up to election day, citing "Country over Party," tweeted Tuesday night that "decency" had won.
Alabama's other senator — Republican Richard Shelby — had made clear that he was not pleased with his party's nominee. He said he voted for a write-in candidate instead of Moore after the Washington Post reported in early November that Moore had engaged in sexual contact with a woman when she was 14 and he was in his thirties. The last time Alabama elected to send a Democrat to the Senate, it was for Shelby's second term in 1992. He switched parties in 1994.
Republicans weren't psyched to cede a Senate seat to Democrats. But the damage, several said, would be more limited. Jones will fill the rest of Sessions’ term, which ends in 2020, and then he’ll have to run for reelection. In a presidential election year, with presidential-level turnout, and — presumably — a less controversial Republican candidate on the ballot, Republicans expect they’ll be able to easily retake the seat.
“It is a two-year rental of a seat,” said GOP pollster Chris Wilson, likening it to Republican Scott Brown winning a 2010 special Senate election in Massachusetts before being promptly ousted in 2012.
Moore, on the other hand, could have conceivably held the seat for several terms.
But the next two years could be difficult ones for Republicans. Major legislative priorities, such as the effort to repeal Obamacare, have fallen by the wayside this year, as Senate Republican leadership has struggled to get all of its members onto the same page. In less than a year, Vice President Mike Pence has already cast five votes to break ties in the Senate. Joe Biden did not cast a single one; Dick Cheney cast eight over the course of eight years. Jones’ election leaves Republicans with just a 51-vote majority, and no room for error. And it gives Democrats a path — if a tenuous one — to win the Senate majority in 2018.
And it might not be the last special election that Republicans have to contend with. President Trump is reportedly mulling nominating Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton to be the new CIA director, and nominating the current director, Mike Pompeo, to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, whose relationship with the president has reportedly soured. Tuesday's result could be a deterrent to making an appointment that would result in another special election, though this one would take place at the same time as the November midterms, potentially mitigating the unpredictability of a special.
The Senate Republican campaign arm, which withdrew its support for Moore following the allegations, called on Jones — as a newly minted representative of a deep red state — to caucus with Republicans. “Tonight’s results are clear – the people of Alabama deemed Roy Moore unfit to serve in the US Senate,” Sen. Cory Gardner, chair of the National Republican Senate Committee, said in a statement. “I hope Senator-elect Doug Jones will do the right thing and truly represent Alabama by choosing to vote with the Senate Republican Majority.”
Meanwhile, the Senate Leadership Fund — a super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — blamed the loss on former chief White House strategist Steve Bannon.
"This is a brutal reminder that candidate quality matters regardless of where you are running," SLF president Steven Law said in a statement. "Not only did Steve Bannon cost us a critical Senate seat in one of the most Republican states in the country, but he also dragged the President of the United States into his fiasco."
In any case, Republican Sen. Luther Strange, who was appointed to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ old seat and lost to Moore in a primary, will remain in Senate until at least the new year. "Sen. Strange is going to be here through the end of this session," McConnell told reporters on Capitol Hill on Tuesday afternoon. That's likely a relief to most of the conference. Republicans are eager to pass a sweeping tax bill, and Strange is a reliable "yes" vote.
For Democrats, the lessons and wisdom to draw from this result are limited — a statewide race in Alabama provides little in the way of a template for Democratic efforts in 2018 and 2020. But Democrats credit Jones’ campaign for putting him in a position to seize on the opportunity when it did present itself: raising the money, going on television, and building the necessary infrastructure. His win vindicates Democrats’ efforts to recruit good candidates even in places where Democrats have only an outside shot of victory.
"You have to be prepared; these things don’t just happen by luck," said Alabama-based Democratic pollster John Anzalone. "The scandal may be luck, but you have to be prepared to take advantage of it."
No one at the Jones party was questioning why they won, they were just elated that they had. The news rippled slowly through the room, with excited cheers breaking out in clusters as people realized that Jones had actually done it. Some began crying; others started to dance.
"I told you!" Marquitta Callender triumphantly told Gibson Holladay. Callender said she has mostly voted Republican, but she had supported Jones since the beginning — even before the sexual harassment allegations came out. "I could not vote for the Republican [... ] I've had a Doug Jones sign in my yard from day one," she said.
"I thought we had this for a long time," she told BuzzFeed News. "I'm so glad we actually did."
"I didn't think Doug Jones was gonna win," said Holladay, beaming. "And I'm, like, crazy excited."
Democratic leaders were quick to say Tuesday's win in Alabama, like last month's gubernatorial win in Virginia, bodes well for the party in next year's midterm elections.
"Roy Moore was an awful candidate and never should have gotten to the Senate," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement. "But make no mistake about itL just like in Virginia, Democrats are energized, focused on the middle class and those struggling to get there, and things are looking better and better for 2018."
Emma Loop reported from Washington, DC.