A Rebirth for Alabama Democrats? Not So Fast

Alabama Democrats were euphoric in December when Doug Jones narrowly won Jeff Sessions’s former Senate seat in a special election. But few in the state think the party is ready to duplicate his success in many other races.

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — When Doug Jones won a Senate seat in Alabama last December, many Democrats celebrated the outcome as a watershed, while Republicans saw it as a blip.

Who turns out to be correct will depend on when their answers are graded.

Less than a year after Alabama surprised itself by electing its first Democratic senator in a quarter-century, Republicans are primed to reassert what they regard as the state’s hard-won political order. And the Democrats, though emboldened and enchanted by Mr. Jones’s victory, are only beginning to rebuild the long-atrophied political muscles they need to compete.

“This year, you’re not going to see a giant blue wave coming across the state of Alabama,” Mr. Jones said in an interview. “But there are opportunities in the state where we can make some strides.”

The stakes this autumn for both parties, and the state as a whole, are significant. With a few exceptions, every statewide elected office will be on the ballot in November. So will every seat in the Republican-dominated Legislature — and the lawmakers elected this year are expected to be in power through the redistricting process that will follow the 2020 census.

Alabama’s electoral calendar makes the question that has loomed for eight months — How well will Mr. Jones’s success transfer to other Democrats? — especially stark, particularly in a state that has tilted almost entirely toward Republicans in recent years.

“There’s got to be a stemming of that tide, before you can say that his election was a high-water mark that stopped the Republicans from winning,” John H. Merrill, the Republican secretary of state, said in his Capitol office.

Republicans have plenty of reasons for confidence despite the Senate setback. For one thing, none of the major Republican candidates running this year are as perennially controversial or, at this point, as politically radioactive as Roy S. Moore, the former State Supreme Court chief justice who won the party’s nomination in the Senate race, only to see his campaign collapse after he was accused of sexual misconduct. For another, Alabama’s most powerful Democrats are far from united; there have been open clashes, including an attempt this month by Mr. Jones to oust the state party chairwoman.

Most of all, there are the numbers: More than twice as many voters cast ballots in the Republican primary for governor as in the Democratic primary. Studies consistently rank Alabama among the nation’s most conservative states, and among the least elastic, meaning there are relatively few swing voters. And even against an opponent who had become a pariah, Mr. Jones won by just 21,924 votes out of more than 1.3 million cast.

Mr. Jones acknowledges that his victory was “not in and of itself indicative of a long-term trend.” But he and other Democrats say it laid a foundation for them to mount competitive campaigns in certain races this year, including some for statewide office.

“Alabama is a ruby-red state,” said Representative Terri Sewell, who was Alabama’s only Democrat in Congress before Mr. Jones’s election. “It was the day Doug was elected, and it definitely was the day after he was elected. But there were some lessons learned that will help us race by race.”

Even so, after years of turbulence in state politicsscandals, convictions, skulduggery, a rescheduled Senate special election, and an impeachment proceeding against a governor — the 2018 general election is shaping up to be remarkably conventional and ordinary, at least so far.

“Under the normal conditions existing this fall, I’m confident lightning will not strike twice for the Democrats in Alabama,” said Luther Strange, the Republican former state attorney general who briefly filled the Senate seat that Mr. Jones now holds.

Such assessments are a balm for Republicans, commonplace among analysts, and no surprise to Democrats, who have largely foundered in the state since Republicans captured the Governor’s Mansion in 2002.

But there is also widening agreement that Democrats are better positioned in Alabama now than they have been in at least a decade, and perhaps longer.

That is not saying all that much. And many Democrats say it reflects the strengths of individual campaigns, not those of the party as a whole.

In the days after Mr. Jones’s victory, Don E. Siegelman, the last Democrat to serve as governor of Alabama, spoke for many Democrats when he said the state party was still “an organizational flop” that had “been of little or no value to candidates.” Another Democratic former governor, Jim Folsom Jr., said that the state party was “in shambles.” And Mr. Jones said last week that “the party infrastructure continues to be just stagnant.”

Yet even before the votes were cast in December, Democrats were boasting about how the Jones campaign would single-handedly modernize a party structure that had rotted, with fresh voter data and reconstituted and broadened networks of donors and volunteers. Now armed with a surge of energy, they also believe, as Democrats across the country do, that dissatisfaction with President Trump will help attract centrist voters.

Whether they can keep assembling the coalition that elected Mr. Jones is a more daunting and urgent question. Mr. Jones, who is expected to seek a full six-year term in 2020, earned resounding support from black voters in the state, as well as a much larger share of white voters than his party has generally attracted in recent years.

And he benefited from the reality that many Republicans simply stayed home rather than vote for Mr. Moore.

This year, officials in both parties believe that the strongest Democratic prospects in the state are three white men: Walt Maddox, the mayor of Tuscaloosa and the party’s nominee for governor; Joseph Siegelman, the former governor’s son, who is running for attorney general; and Robert S. Vance Jr., who nearly defeated Mr. Moore in a State Supreme Court race in 2012 and is again running for chief justice.

“There is energy and there is passion, and that’s the effect of the Doug Jones race, especially since he won,” Mr. Maddox said. “People, rightly so, felt like their efforts contributed to a win, and when you win, you want to do it again and again and again.”

Mr. Jones, for his part, is urging his party’s candidates to “be authentic, engage the voters and don’t take any voting segment for granted.” Democrats, he said, were “finally waking up to the fact that we have to play what I call long ball.”

Through a campaign spokeswoman, Mr. Maddox’s opponent, Gov. Kay Ivey, declined to be interviewed for this article.

But Terry Lathan, the chairwoman of the Alabama Republican Party, questioned the significance of the Democratic Party’s nascent recovery in Alabama, even as campaign-finance records showed Mr. Maddox’s fund-raising keeping pace with Ms. Ivey’s in July and his having more cash on hand than she did.

“If you’re on life support, and all of a sudden you don’t need an oxygen machine, I guess that’s a step in a better direction,” Ms. Lathan said. “But it doesn’t mean you’re ready to run a marathon.”

Democrats, some more tentatively than others, sense the possibility of a sustained opening, the first they have seen in many years. But beyond social media, even the most seasoned and stalwart Democrats qualify their expectations.

“Maybe Doug Jones was a perfect storm,” said John D. Saxon, a Birmingham lawyer and a longtime figure in Democratic politics in Alabama. “Last year was special. But if the question is, ‘Can we find the magic again?’ I would say, quite possibly. Not an easy road, not a sure thing, not even a safe bet. But it’s quite possible.”

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