To Keep Alabama Going, Don’t Miss the Forest for the Trees

Doug Jones didn’t win in Alabama because he discovered some special kind of elixir.

A supporter of democratic U.S. Senatorial candidate Doug Jones holds a sign as he watches election returns during an election night gathering the Sheraton Hotel on December 12, 2017 in Birmingham, Alabama. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

It was a low bar, but we cleared it. If you’re an insane pedophile, you don’t get to represent the people of Alabama in the U.S. Senate. Not in this country.

The Democrats ran a good race and they’re right to feel proud about it. But don’t get too excited about the outcome, because most Republican nominees next year aren’t going to be people who think we should bring back slavery, consign gays and lesbians to leper colonies, and take pride in hiring Jews as their attorney (as a Jew, I just keep wondering why the Roy Moore and his wife don’t have at least one Jewish doctor. Not even one? What’s wrong with them?).

Donald Trump may prove to be an albatross upon GOP candidates across the country next year, but relying solely on the Alabama playbook isn’t going to result in a new power structure on Capitol Hill. Yes, you can use finely-tuned turnout models to better focus your ground game. Sure, you can parse through the metadata to figure out the best way to get more likes on your candidate’s Instagram. And all of the hatred of Trump means that raising money for Independent Expenditures and SuperPACs is not going to be a problem. But it’s also not enough. Doug Jones didn’t win in Alabama because he discovered some special kind of elixir—he won because the alternative was unacceptable, even to a majority of Alabamans. That’s not a repeatable strategy. If Democrats want to retake the House and Senate next fall, they would be wise to remember the following:

  • You need candidates who people want to vote for. Some politicians have the vote-getting gene. Others don’t. Bill Clinton had it. Hillary Clinton did not. George W. Bush had it. His father and brother did not. Beyond experience or ambition, there’s an inherent vote-getting ability that some candidates just have and some just don’t. When you try to force a candidate down voters’ throats, they say no. That’s why we’re in this mess in the first place.
  • Stop nominating people who had the race planned out in third grade. The voters have made it pretty clear they do not want career politicians. If they did, we’d have had Presidents Al Gore, John Kerry, Bob Dole and Hillary Clinton. They keep telling us this, over and over, and we keep nominating people who have never had a real job, never lived a real life, and fundamentally can’t relate to the people whose votes they need. Obviously, we need candidates (and elected officials) who are qualified to do the job, but when that’s all we give voters, they look elsewhere. Next year’s Democratic House nominees do not have to be current State Senators, State Reps or party officials. And ideally, they’d even believe in things. Both parties are beset by candidates and consultants who read some bio of Dick Morris twenty years ago and still think the goal is to win every news cycle, every battle, every moment. It’s not all about positioning, triangulation and pivoting. It’s about having a set of core beliefs, recognizing the job is to thoughtfully balance a lot of competing, usually not unreasonable interests and views, and making the best decision you can each time without worrying about what the ad against you is going to look like. That’s what voters want. Democrats need to recognize that.
  • You need candidates who fit the zeitgeist of the times. Right after 9/11, you would have predicted that the guy who lectures you how on to use the self-check out scanner at CVS was more likely to win the Presidency than someone named Barack Hussein Obama. But times change quickly, and seven years later, Obama was exactly what we wanted. We needed a message of hope and change—and alone among all the candidates, he gave it to us. Trump fit the zeitgeist of 2016, because he was selling something that enough voters were buying. Democrats tend to choose candidates based on experience. That’s not how voters do it. We live in a very particular moment—one that’s scary because of rapid societal change (economic, political, climate, technological) and even scarier because of who’s in charge of getting us through it. You need to know how voters in each state and each district really feel and what they really want. You can’t solve that just by analyzing mountains of polling data from DuPont Circle.

It’s not hard to understand what’s at stake. But that’s very different from understanding how to recognize what the voters are looking for and making sure you give it to them. And that doesn’t just come from demonizing the other side. It doesn’t just come from statistical analysis. It comes from choosing candidates who are real people, with intrinsic beliefs, intrinsic appeal and an intrinsic sense of the moment. It doesn’t matter who wants to be the nominee. It matters whether they’ll resonate enough with the voters to beat their GOP opponent—likely none of whom will be as unappealing as Roy Moore.

As goes Alabama so goes America said no one, ever. Democrats (and all of us) should feel good about defeating Moore. But don’t confuse an uplifting night for a formula for victory in 2018.

Bradley Tusk is the founder and CEO of Tusk Holdings, the parent company of Tusk Strategies, Tusk Ventures, Kronos Archives, the Ivory Gaming Group and Tusk Montgomery Philanthropies. In 2009, he served as Mike Bloomberg’s campaign manager, guiding Mayor Bloomberg to a third term. To Keep Alabama Going, Don’t Miss the Forest for the Trees