Republican Roy Moore’s defeat in Alabama Tuesday signaled the power of sexual misconduct, even when only alleged, as an issue in U.S. politics. The dynamics at play seemed to provide a winning formula for Democrats after a previous string of red-state election losses.
But the party is not ready to claim “Me Too” as its midterm campaign slogan just yet.
Instead, Democrats assessing the fallout from the Senate special election insist there was more to Moore’s fatally flawed candidacy, and to their winning message, than what the shifting cultural ground on sexual assault and harassment exposed.
“I think Moore had something to do with it, and obviously a party that clings to a candidate like that has something wrong with them, but it wasn’t the whole story,” Democratic Senate Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters Wednesday. “The lesson of this election is that the Republican policies are all wrong.”
Perhaps underscoring Schumer’s point, the victorious Doug Jones ran as a mainstream Democrat, focusing on local and federal policy issues as well as Moore’s alleged transgressions. He also had a well-funded organization aimed at turning out the voters he needed. He outperformed Hillary Clinton in key areas while Moore underperformed Donald Trump.
But the allegations against Moore were also at center stage in a race that became nationalized by both parties. Two percent of voters wrote in a candidate not named Moore or Jones, and that 2 percent was the margin of victory.
Exit polling suggests women also made a difference. The Democrat won 57 percent of the female vote, including 98 percent of black women. While Moore won white female voters, Jones still garnered 34 percent of their support, vastly overperforming Barack Obama’s showing among this demographic.
One exit survey also included the unusual question of whether voters had children under the age of 18 living at home. Among mothers for whom that is the case, 67 percent voted for Jones, while Moore won 56 percent of fathers in that category.
National Democrats have seized on all of those numbers, and also credit high turnout among African-American voters as key to the victory. A week before the election, Democrats took the unusual step of pushing out one of their own, Sen. Al Franken, when allegations of his own misconduct mounted. After Franken — and Rep. John Conyers before him — announced his resignation, Democrats claimed ground from which to spotlight Republicans on this issue, particularly Moore and the president, who had endorsed the GOP nominee.
Taken all together, the allegations against Moore and the Democrats’ newly established “no tolerance” policy on alleged harassment raised questions about whether Alabama would serve as a test case for voter mood on the subject. And the results seem to offer an answer. A year after 63 percent of Alabama voters backed Trump, who at the time was facing sexual harassment allegations of his own, Jones won almost 50 percent of the vote.
Yet even amid this apparent cultural sea change, Democrats seem wary of campaigning explicitly on the issue of sexual assault. Attempts to focus on cultural issues in the last election or the so-called War on Women in the previous midterm failed. And wins in the Virginia gubernatorial and legislative elections last month, which saw high Democratic turnout, came before the issue of sexual assault became a national focal point.
Instead, Democrats are aiming to package it as part of a broader message that Republicans are out of touch.
“On the one hand, Democrats clearly need to craft a message that articulates what people need to vote for, what candidates for the Democratic Party are going to accomplish for constituents, and offer a forward-looking vision still,” said Democratic strategist Lynda Tran. “But the ‘Me Too’ piece of it is really about accountability and more about changing the underlying structure of our culture and stretches far beyond politics.”
The new climate makes “very clear the implications for sitting elected officials or those running for office who have violated women or violated the sense of decorum … and is less about a rallying cry for electing people,” Tran added.
In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez spoke of so-called kitchen-table issues: jobs, wages, health care, a retirement safety net, housing, access to public education. The Alabama election came as Republicans are preparing their tax reform bill for final passage.
But Perez also highlighted the most obvious rallying point: “The continuous attacks on women. The refusal of the Republican Party to call for Congressman [Blake] Farenthold to resign. The appalling silence on issues of sexual misconduct, whether it’s the Oval Office or whether it’s these other members of Congress. They will suffer the consequences because they do not have their finger on the pulse.”
Farenthold used $84,000 in taxpayer funds to settle a sexual harassment complaint against him. The House Ethics Committee has opened an investigation, but the Texas lawmaker remains in Congress. Last week, House Speaker Paul Ryan urged Republican Rep. Trent Franks to resign after reports surfaced that he had asked a staffer to be a surrogate mother.
Democratic strategists say the party can compete on multiple planes.
“I don’t think we have to choose whether to talk about health care or the tax bill or the Russia investigation or sexual assault,” said Jesse Ferguson, a veteran of national Democratic campaigns. “Ultimately, Republicans in Washington have revealed that they don’t give a darn for most working people in the middle class — whether that’s repealing health care, raising taxes, or turning a blind eye to an abusive corporate culture.”
In his acceptance speech, Jones appeared to take that track, melding multiple issues together.
“This entire race has been about dignity and respect. This campaign has been about the rule of law. This campaign has been about common courtesy and decency and making sure everyone in this state, regardless of which ZIP Code you live in, is going to get a fair shake in life,” he said. “But I want to make sure, in all seriousness — there are important issues facing this country, there are important issues of health care and jobs and the economy.”
Send letters to: email@example.com.