Why you should care

All of a sudden, control of the Senate is in play.

How Democrats are trying to climb out of their historic hole.How Democrats are trying to climb out of their historic hole. Read more of this OZY original series.

Beto O’Rourke was already feeling the excitement from Democrats in unlikely corners of Texas. But the little-known congressman challenging Republican Sen. Ted Cruz started to get a lot more interest from Washington after Alabama Democrat Doug Jones’ stunning triumph in December. “Something that was written off as unwinnable, or at minimum unlikely, after Alabama for a lot people is now possible,” O’Rourke says.

It’s not just Texas. Democrats are feeling more bullish about Senate races in Tennessee, where a popular former governor is running, and even Mississippi, where long-shut fund-raising doors are starting to open for Democrats. They’re talking up governors’ races in Georgia and South Carolina. Democrats have long struggled in the South, and most competitive battleground races this year reside elsewhere, so it’s hard to see enough money to go around for robust campaigns in these reach states. But suddenly, that’s not seen as a foregone conclusion.

“Why not?” asks Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC, which spent millions of dollars finding and turning out Black voters to fuel recent Democratic wins in Virginia and Alabama. “Nothing gets people excited like winning,” Shropshire adds. “I think that [Virginia and Alabama] changed people’s perspective — and donors’ as well.”

It’s a sea change.

Mississippi Democratic Party Chairman Bobby Moak

Republicans consider Alabama a fluke. Chris Hansen, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, scoffs at the idea of a Southern Democratic uprising. “They’re just wrong,” he says. “An incredible confluence of events had to happen for them to win that election.” Indeed, the fiery Roy Moore might not have been the GOP nominee without Gov. Robert Bentley resigning over a sex scandal cover-up, which tarred Bentley’s pick to fill the seat, Luther Strange. Then Moore’s general election hopes were torpedoed by allegations of pedophilia. Democrats acknowledge Moore is a shoo-in for the Campaign Disaster Hall of Fame, but they also believe they have a winning Southern formula of juicing Black turnout while swinging Trump-skeptical suburban whites.

That takes money. U.S. Senate Democrats’ Super PAC pumped $6 million into Alabama — including $2 million with BlackPAC for a field program to appeal to African-Americans. (In a tactic likely to be repeated, Senate Majority PAC’s media buys came via a front organization named Highway 31 that did not have to disclose the source of the money until after the election, an attempt to avoid the perception of Washington interference.)

Neither Senate Majority PAC nor BlackPAC has decided where to spend this year, but Shropshire says the South is fertile ground to engage Black voters early and in person. A shift she’s seen this cycle is that, in many cases, Black voters are as motivated by racial justice issues as economic ones. They are “deeply concerned and angered, in a way, about the rise of white supremacy and racism and bigotry,” she says.

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Sen. Cory Booker raises the arm of Democratic senatorial candidate Doug Jones while speaking at Jones’ campaign headquarters on Dec. 10, 2017.

Source JIM WATSON/Getty

Two neighboring states have parts of the Alabama cocktail but lack all the ingredients. Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, who was the last statewide Democratic officeholder, is a formidable candidate. “There’s no reason to think Tennessee can’t be at least competitive,” says Geoffrey Skelley of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. But he still rates it as a likely Republican hold. Tennessee has a smaller proportion of Black voters, and the GOP front-runner is Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a solid candidate — though she has not been through the crucible of a statewide race.

Mississippi has a higher Black voting population than Alabama, but not as many city folk and suburbanites. It does have a potential Alabama-style GOP primary, if sharp-tongued Tea Party State Sen. Chris McDaniel challenges U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker. But the only declared Democratic candidate so far is Jensen Bohren, 34, a political novice who tells OZY he has not yet raised the $1,000 he needs to get on the ballot. State Democratic Party Chairman Bobby Moak says, “We have about five viable candidates who are looking” at the race, and they need to decide among themselves who takes a shot. Moak wouldn’t name them, but news reports suggest Attorney General Jim Hood and Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley (a distant relative to Elvis) as possibilities.

Moak realizes it’s late in the cycle to be waiting on a candidate, but it has been hard to convince people that bright red Mississippi is winnable. But now, post-Alabama, “it’s a sea change.” The wild card in Mississippi is U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran’s fragile health. If the 80-year-old resigns, it would create simultaneous Senate races — aka electoral bedlam.

In the 48 hours after Jones’ win, the campaign of Georgia’s Stacey Abrams — seeking to become the first Black female governor in U.S. history — saw a surge of Twitter followers and brought in $50,000 in low-dollar donations from 1,500 people, according to a spokeswoman. Still, Abrams faces a tough primary, and Democrats have been shut out in Georgia statewide elections for a decade. South Carolina is even more of a reach, but an FBI corruption probe in which the Republican governor’s longtime political adviser has been indicted gives Democrats a glimmer of hope.

When it comes to the Senate, Republicans have a massive geographic edge: Democrats must defend 10 states where Trump won. Nevada is the only Republican-held Hillary Clinton state on the 2018 map. But with political winds shifting Democrats’ direction and the Republican Senate margin narrowed to 51–49, Southern long shots give Democrats more of a path — however tortured and unlikely — to the majority.

Texas’ purple creep, thanks to a growing minority population and Cruz’s underwater approval rating, has O’Rourke selling his state as the tipping point. “The power that that 51st vote holds to convene Democrats and Republicans to work with some kind of common purpose to get stuff done cannot be overstated,” he says, en route from Waxahachie to Cleburne — from one event full of newly hopeful Texas Democrats to another.

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