Is Alabama’s Doug Jones the Scott Brown of 2017? Yes and no
The comparisons began the moment the final results came. Tuesday night’s upset by Democrat Doug Jones — who shocked the political class by pulling off a victory in the Alabama special election for Senate against Roy Moore — looked an awful lot like another unlikely win in Massachusetts seven years ago.
Republican Scott Brown’s upset triumph over Democrat Martha Coakley in deeply blue Massachusetts, wrestled control of a Senate seat away from a party that had held it for so long no one could even imagine a scenario in which it could flip. And like the Jones-Moore election, the one here in Massachusetts took place in the dead of winter.
There are other obvious parallels about the pair of wins, particularly their significance as potential early warning signs of a party wave that could be coming in the impending midterm elections. But the analogy is also deeply unfair to both Jones and Brown, each of whose candidacies were saddled with challenges that the other never had to face. Let’s dive deeper into the comparison that’s been quick to people’s lips in the aftermath of the Alabama special election.
Months before their respective elections, both Jones and Brown were dismissed by their party and assumed to have no shot in a state long labeled ruby red or true blue. But then three things happened in both contests: a national mood put the wind at their backs, they ran smart campaigns, and their opponents ran horrible ones.
In Brown’s case, the 2010 race to fill the seat long held by Ted Kennedy came at a time when Republicans were beginning to re-energize after losing a bruising presidential race. There were strong feelings that the proposed Obamacare law was too much, too soon, creating a backlash, even among moderate voters. And then there was the feeling that Coakley wasn’t earning the vote, while Brown was everywhere.
For Jones, there wasn’t a specific bill that created a groundswell; rather it was the results of two key movements. First came the opposition to all things Trump, a movement that’s only grown in the year since his election. And then came the #MeToo moment, which gained steam at the very second that Roy Moore was accused of sexual misconduct.
The similarities didn’t end there. There was that election held around the holidays, when many wondered if voters would engage enough to care (in both cases they did and then some). Both featured losing candidates who were roundly criticized for dropping off the campaign trail in the crucial final days before ballots were cast (does Fenway Park ring a bell?). And they both included Hail Mary passes from the sitting president, who swooped in with a last-minute endorsement that proved unsuccessful. Perhaps most important, both races promised to have a potentially serious impact on high-profile legislation facing the Senate.
In each election, the path to victory was small and the winning campaign deftly appealed to moderate voters, convincing them to come to the polls in an election that otherwise might have seen most stay home. Neither Jones nor Brown had to be a rockstar. What they had to do was make themselves out to be be a good enough alternative, while staying strong on message. Both did and both won.
But to suggest that Jones and Brown were the exact same candidates in different years takes something away from both of them — and that’s where the previous argument starts to break down.
Why is it unfair to Brown? While Brown’s opponent wasn’t great on the campaign trail, she also wasn’t an accused child molester. It is hard to see how Jones could have had a better opponent to face than Moore, who had several accusations of acting inappropriately with teenage girls decades ago, including once with a 14-year-old.
Why is it unfair to Jones to lump him in with Brown? It is harder for a Democrat to get elected in Alabama than it is for a Republican to get elected in Massachusetts. Historically speaking, Jones’s win was more shocking because Democrats just don’t have the track record of winning there statewide as Republicans do in the Bay State, where we have long elected Republican governors, often to serve as a check on the Democratic majority.
Furthermore, these candidates embodied drastically different styles on the campaign trail. Massachusetts voters from both parties genuinely liked Brown — many suggested it was Brown’s personality (and that barn jacket) that convinced them to vote at all. By contrast, in Alabama, Jones made himself a nonfactor. Voters barely knew who he was, other than the fact that he wasn’t Moore.
Even if Jones rejects the Brown comparison, he’d be wise to think through what he can learn from Brown as a senator. Like Brown, he will be up for reelection in a presidential year (in Jones’s case, 2020), and he will be without a doubt the most vulnerable Democrat. Brown, of course, lost to Democrat Elizabeth Warren in the 2012 presidential year when Massachusetts Democrats rallied behind a superstar candidate and returned the seat to blue status.
Hanging on to the Alabama seat going forward will be extra challenging for Jones. But hey, if reelection doesn’t work out for him, maybe he can pick up on another idea of Brown’s and move to the swing state next door (in his case, Florida) and challenge Marco Rubio for the Senate in 2022.