Democrat Doug Jones won his bid for a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama Tuesday night against Republican Roy Moore in one of the most closely watched elections of the year. But the real winners of this election are the thousands of voters who came together into a movement to meet the challenge of keeping a homophobe, racist and accused pedophile out of the U.S. Senate.
"What this represents is a turning point; it's not just a Senate seat," said Stephanie Guilloud, co-executive director of Project South, a grassroots organizing group based in Atlanta. The mobilization for Jones was just the latest chapter in what Guilloud called "decades and generations of groundbreaking work to win voting rights" and "deep, proud movement building."
The mobilization helped bring about the defeat of Moore, whose political career was built on right-wing hyper-extremism. Ironically for a judge, a cornerstone of his appeal been his defiance of the rule of law. Moore had twice been removed from the state Supreme Court bench, once for defying a court order to remove a Ten Commandments sculpture he had installed in the state judicial building, and a second time for refusing to abide by the Supreme Court's ruling on marriage equality.
In this campaign, he vocally opposed efforts to register voters after Alabama's Republican governor passed the Definition of Moral Turpitude Act earlier this year. The Act restores voting rights to as many as 200,000 Alabamans convicted of non-violent crimes, who had previously been barred from the polls by erroneous interpretations of the state's 1901 constitution.
Moore's Senate campaign was clouded by allegations he sexually molested or harassed teenage girls while working as a state prosecutor in his 30s. But while those charges dominated the national conversation, Moore's history of attacks on LGBT people and comments like one he made in September that America was "great" when "even though we had slavery ... [o]ur families were strong, our country had a direction" helped complete the picture of a candidate wedded to keeping alive Alabama's, and the country's, bigoted past.
Alabama's Black Belt
One result of the movement building that rose up to counter Moore's candidacy was unexpectedly high turnout in Alabama's Black Belt, a swath of counties bordering the bottom third of the state. Exit polls estimated that African Americans were 29 percent of the Alabama electorate, roughly on par with their presence in the state. Turnout in predominantly African-American districts was historically high for an off-year election.
"I am seeing more enthusiasm and excitement," Pastor Kenneth Glasgow, leader of the Alabama organization The Ordinary People Society, said Tuesday afternoon. He had spent the day poll-watching in the state. "Our numbers will be higher than they have been for a long time."
Guilloud, who has roots in Alabama, and Glasgow both say the lasting legacy of the Jones-Moore contest is the building of a grassroots infrastructure that transcends the traditionally transient Democratic Party election mobilizations.
A key focus has been efforts like Glasgow's "Let My People Vote" campaign, which goes door to door and into prisons to ensure that current and formerly incarcerated Alabamans, who are disproportionately African American, know they have the right to vote and use that right. Glasgow works closely with Project South and the Southern Movement Alliance, which bring together forty grassroots groups across eleven Southern states, including groups that focus on environmental justice and rights for women, LGBTQ and immigrants, as well as on voting rights. Many of these allies came to Alabama in the days preceding the election to help Glasgow and others turn out the vote.
"Doug Jones is a decent candidate," Guilloud said, but what has been more important has been "a culture of connection" that is emerging in the state around the intersectionality of race, gender, sexual orientation and economic status. "That is a piece of the story that is not being told," she said.
As a candidate, Jones himself hasn't yet inspired widespread enthusiasm among black Alabamans, even as he received roughly 95 percent of their votes. The center of Jones's pitch to African American voters was his record as a state prosecutor who brought to justice in the early 2000s two Ku Klux Klan members involved in an infamous Birmingham church bombing in 1963.
Portia Shepherd, who works with Black Belt Citizens Fighting For Health and Justice, said she appreciated Jones's role in prosecuting the Montgomery bombing case, but as a young woman, "I am a Johnny-come-lately. I want to know what you have done for me lately."
In terms of dealing with the concerns of poor people living in the Black Belt, she says, Jones "has not said anything other than play on the emotions of people." Nonetheless, she said, she voted for Jones because "I know who I don't want in the Senate."
A nearly four-minute video Jones released in the final days of his campaign had an overall centrist and occasionally even conservative tone, with no mention of any of the issues that animate left or progressive activists. Roughly a third of the video was devoted to the sexual assault and harassment allegations against Moore, which was immediately followed by a pointed reference to his support for the Second Amendment.
A line he repeated twice in the video – "Together, we can build a better Alabama that works for all citizens" – could just as easily been slipped into a speech by Alabama's conservative senior senator, Republican Richard Shelby.
Rallying the Roots
The Jones campaign did spend significant effort in the final days to rally African-American turnout, and for some people that reflected more than just a bid for votes.
"Doug Jones is someone all of us in the black community know," Glasgow said, because of his continuing engagement in the community. That level of consistent commitment to communities is an important lesson for political parties. "When you come up with a candidate who comes out of the clear blue sky, that is one of the biggest turn-offs," he said.
Now that Jones has won the Senate race, Shepherd says the people she is mobilizing across the state to confront issues such as environmental pollution in low-income communities will have "accessibility to move things forward,"as Alabama seats its first Democratic Senator in twenty-five years.
But taking advantage of this new access will mean continuing to nurture the grassroots infrastructure that is working to reclaim Alabama's politics from the clutches of white nationalists and conservative extremists.
"What all of these parties and national organizations are seeing is the power and longevity of grassroots movements," Guilloud said. These movements, she said, now "need support and investment" to turn Tuesday'e electoral victory into truly transformative political change.