For the past four months, Birmingham City Councilor Sheila Tyson and other local activists were going door to door in Alabama, encouraging people to vote in Tuesday’s special election for Senate.
Speaking by phone Tuesday, Tyson said she had feared the grassroots push to get out black votes wouldn’t work. She had assumed some people would forget, or just stay home. But then, she saw the long lines forming at polling places around her city and car after car pulling up to go vote.
“I’m not worried anymore,” Tyson said. “The lines have been long, the parking lots jam-packed. These African-American communities are turning up, and they are turning out.”
Alabama’s black voters have been credited with delivering a historic win to Doug Jones, the first Democrat to win a Senate seat in deeply red Alabama in the past 25 years.
Exit polls estimated black voters made up about 30 percent of the overall state turnout Tuesday night, edging higher than their participation in either the 2008 or 2012 presidential elections, when Barack Obama was on the ballot. Black voters went overwhelmingly for Jones, while far fewer white Trump voters appear to have turned out for Moore.
“If Jones prevails, as looks increasingly likely, a major reason would be that the black share of Alabama vote is way up vs. past elections,” elections analyst Dave Wasserman tweeted on Election Night.
Those on the ground said that polarized politics in the age of Trump are energizing Democratic voters in Alabama in a way they haven’t been energized in years.
“It’s almost like Trump has shaken the life back into us,” said Catrena Norris Carter, the founder and president of Women of Will, an organization encouraging female leaders to run for office in Alabama.
Facing a Republican candidate like Moore was extra incentive. Even before Moore was embroiled in a sexual misconduct scandal, he was known for his fundamentalist and far-right Christian views on same-sex marriage and abortion — as well as his opposition to Muslims serving in government and his belief that portions of the country are already under Sharia law. Moore also drew criticism for talking about America’s history of racial tension, and saying he thought the country was “strong” and “united” in past centuries, “even though we had slavery.”
Tyson knocked on doors in both white and black communities around the state as part of the get out the vote efforts. She said that while many of the white voters she talked to were more inclined to vote for Moore, Alabama’s black voters were having none of it.
“When we go to the black area it’s totally different,” she said. “They’re letting him have it. The last month, people have gone slap crazy about going to vote. They are just energized.”
“Vote or Die”
Tuesday night’s win was a product of months of organizing and planning. It was the result of an effort between local grassroots activists, the national Democratic Party, and outside progressive groups.
The Alabama senate race dominated the national headlines, but organizers said black voters they spoke to were just as energized about local issues including an oppressively low state minimum wage, increasingly segregated schools, and rural hospitals closing in majority-black areas.
Carter was one of the organizers of a state get out the vote campaign called “Vote or Die” targeting voters in Alabama’s so-called “Black Belt,” which stretches across the middle of the state.
“It’s not extreme, it’s what is going to happen,” Carter said of the campaign’s slogan.
“It literally is the death of a lot of issues that affect us directly,” she added. “If we don’t vote, if we do allow (in) a Republican, specifically an extremist like Roy Moore, it's the death of health care, it’s the death of women’s rights.”
Carter, Tyson and others went door to door in cities and rural areas alike, including impoverished places where voters didn’t have television or internet, to tell them in person how to get to the polls. They said they encountered voters who weren’t even aware the election was being held on Tuesday.
“If you’re aware of the state of poor, rural black and brown folk, they are so concentrated on their next meal and keeping the lights on,” Carter said. “They’re not plugged into the matrix of it all because they are focused on their day to day struggle.”
For once, the national Democratic Party was an active presence in Alabama
For the first time in years, local organizers had an ally in the national Democratic Party, usually absent in past Alabama elections. The Democratic National Committee and its other fundraising arms normally largely sit out elections in deeply Southern states like Alabama that are dominated by Republicans.
“We usually get nothing,” Carter said. “Unfortunately, they have deemed all of us red states. Even with Obama, even with Hillary, there were very few resources that were sent down. When they’re on the campaign trails, they don’t stop in Alabama.”
But when Moore’s campaign became marred by allegations of child molestation and accusations that he pursued sexual relationships with young teenage girls when he was in his 30s, the Democratic Party jumped at the chance to help Jones flip the Senate seat.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee jumped into action, helping to mobilize field teams on the ground in recent weeks.
Even as Moore dominated the national headlines, increased campaign contributions from Democrats, Super PACs, and small donors alike helped Jones blanket the airwaves with campaign ads up to Election Day. In fact, Jones raised $11.5 million in individual contributions since May — more than double the $5.2 million raised by Moore, according to federal campaign finance data. Of that, $3.9 million came from people in Alabama, compared to the $771,202 Moore raised.
Jones was also backed by progressive groups like MoveOn.org, Democracy for America, and the League of Conservation voters. Together, the three groups helped raised more than $600,000 for the Democratic candidate.
Tyson and Carter took notice of the attention and cash suddenly being showered on their state. And they said the Democratic Party needs to take Jones’s win as a lesson to expand their reach into traditionally conservative states.
“I think the party needs to do a better job of engaging,” Carter said. “We weren’t always red states. It could very easily flip back over, but it’s going to take work on the ground.”
Some election observers cautioned not to put too much stock in the 2017 Senate race changing the course of Alabama politics, adding that Democrats benefited heavily from running against such a flawed Republican candidate who was disavowed by many in his own party.
Alabama “is among the most solidly republican states in the country,” said George Hawley, assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama. “I would say the Democrats actually put a real effort in this year as opposed to other years where they’re doing it to say they contested an election. I don’t think this fundamentally signals very much about the future of politics in Alabama.”
But they say it’s going to take work to build a coalition of black and white Democrats in a state deeply polarized by race, class, and, often, political party. While black voters helped Jones win, organizers said black voters aren’t enough to sustain Democratic energy into future elections.
“A significant part of the (state) Democratic Party is black, but the reality is you cannot win a state election with just black votes,” said John Zippert, the co-founder of local newspaper the Greene County Democrat and a Vote or Die organizer. “We’re not running individually any more, we’re running as a party. We want to bring Alabama into the 21st century.”
Carter was similarly optimistic about Alabama’s Democratic Party expanding after Tuesday night’s win.
“Let’s hope that this race pumps some energy back into the party and brings particularly more white Democrats back to the party.”