Sabato's Crystal Ball

Notes on the State of Politics: Senate Shenanigans in Alabama and Tennessee

Reactions to the Yellowhammer State’s runoff and the first 2018 Senate retirement comes in the Volunteer State

Geoffrey Skelley and Kyle Kondik, Sabato's Crystal Ball September 28th, 2017

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Roy Moore’s Rolling Tide

There were no surprises in Alabama on Tuesday as former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore (R) dispatched appointed Sen. Luther Strange (R) by about 10 points, 55%-45%, in the state’s Republican primary runoff. Most of the final polls in the race showed a margin around that mark, and as people have a bad habit of only noting when pollsters miss, pollsters deserve kudos for getting this one right.

Strange’s defeat came despite endorsements from President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, overwhelming support from the GOP establishment, and a huge spending edge over Moore. Overall, Strange and his allies — particularly Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) Senate Leadership Fund — outspent Moore and his allies almost five-to-one on television advertisements and ran about four times as many ads. But as we discussed in our preview of the Moore-Strange runoff, Moore’s profile and his base of support always seemed more in line with Trump than Strange’s, and the former jurist won nearly every county in the state. The president even seemed unsure of his Strange endorsement when campaigning on behalf of the beleaguered senator the Friday before the election, when he said at a rally that he “might have made a mistake” in backing Strange. And on Election Night, Trump deleted multiple tweets that he made expressing support for Strange in the leadup to the runoff contest.

Throughout the campaign, Strange was hampered by his connection to McConnell and DC Republicans, as well as the nature of his appointment to the Senate by disgraced ex-Gov. Robert Bentley (R). McConnell and SLF fought tooth and nail via massive expenditures in the race to push Strange across the finish line. Other big GOP groups, like the National Rifle Association and the Chamber of Commerce, also ran ads on behalf of Strange. The last thing McConnell wanted was a political wild card like Moore in his caucus, especially replacing a fairly reliable vote like Strange. As evidenced by the latest failure on health care, the majority leader already has plenty of difficulty getting key GOP legislation passed. McConnell is unpopular among base Republicans, and he proved to be an extremely useful target for Moore and his allies. However, while much of the post-election focus has been on McConnell, it’s important to keep local factors in mind. Namely, Bentley’s appointment of Strange in February to fill the seat of now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The primary and runoff were the first chance for Alabama voters to express their displeasure with Bentley at the ballot box, with Strange serving as the target. Bentley resigned in April after pleading guilty to campaign finance violations, and his appointment of Strange, the state’s attorney general, to Sessions’ vacated seat drew the ire of many Alabamians. Strange’s office was responsible for investigating Bentley, and some accused Strange of slowing the state legislature’s impeachment efforts after Trump won the presidency and it became likely that Sessions would enter his Cabinet. The appointment felt dirty to a lot of Alabama voters and it surely played a part in Strange’s defeat.

As an appointed senator, Strange always had a slightly tougher road. While 94% of elected incumbents have won renomination since the start of popular elections for Senate in 1913, only 80% of appointed incumbents have. That’s still a solid success rate, but Strange became the 24th appointed incumbent seeking reelection to lose his party’s nod. Additionally, incumbents have now lost 18 times in primaries that went to a runoff (out of 31 instances): four failed to make the runoff and 14 lost in the runoff. Of those, appointed incumbents are now zero for six with Strange’s loss. Based on unofficial results from Decision Desk HQ, turnout was up 13% over the initial primary on Aug. 15, going from about 425,000 in the primary to about 481,000 in the runoff. It is relatively unusual for runoff turnout to increase, historically-speaking, though there is recent precedent for it: The closely-watched 2014 Mississippi Senate primary runoff also saw turnout go up.

Turning to the December (not November) special general election, Moore will face former U.S. attorney Doug Jones (D). Some Democrats are already referencing in hopeful tones the name of former Sen. Scott Brown (R), who unexpectedly won a 2010 special election in heavily-Democratic Massachusetts. A Jones win is unlikely, but there are a couple of reasons why it’s not totally out of the question. First, the overall environment appears at least somewhat pro-Democratic, in the sense that President Trump’s approval rating is down to some degree everywhere, even in Alabama, compared to where he started. We also know that historically candidates from the non-White House party tend to do better in legislative elections. In special elections for state and federal legislative seats since Trump’s election, Democrats have out-performed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 margin by about 12 points, and Barack Obama’s 2012 margin by eight points.

Additionally, Moore is a particularly polarizing politician. In November 2012, he only won the Alabama chief justice election 52%-48% even while Mitt Romney was winning about 61% of the vote at the top of the GOP ticket. It doesn’t seem far-fetched to imagine some more-centrist Republicans in places like Birmingham and Huntsville at least considering a vote for Jones. As one person with ties to the state recently said to us, “Better three years of Jones than a lifetime of Moore” (the election is for the remainder of Sessions’ term, which runs through 2020). However, that opinion may not be widely shared in a state where Donald Trump won 62% of the vote. As a Republican in an Alabama statewide election, Moore clearly has a high floor of vote support.

Given these factors, the Crystal Ball is shifting the Alabama race rating from Safe Republican to Likely Republican. The odds that Moore will become the next senator from the Yellowhammer State are quite high, but our new rating reflects the fact that there might be a very small opening for Democrats.

Table 1: Crystal Ball Senate ratings change

Geoffrey Skelley

Exit Corker. Will others follow?

The retirement of Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) prevents the 2018 Senate election cycle from making history — there has always been at least one open seat in the Senate’s popular election era, and that streak will live on. The record for the fewest retirements in any cycle is two, so history suggests more will be coming, and it seems possible that another of the seven remaining GOP incumbents on the ballot next year might bail, particularly if one of those members is worried about a primary challenge. There are already rumblings, in the wake of Roy Moore’s win in Alabama on Tuesday, that state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R) could challenge Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) next year. McDaniel lost a very close runoff to Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) in 2014. Additionally, polls have shown Sens. Dean Heller (R-NV) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) facing uncertain primary and general election prospects, and Utah may be tiring of long-time incumbent Sen. Orrin Hatch (R), although he would be hard to beat if he does follow through with running for another term. One or more Democrats could retire as well, with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) seemingly the likeliest candidate. Last month, we suggested that there was likely to be at least one Senate retirement, and even with Corker deciding to leave, there’s a decent chance that he won’t be the only one.

In Tennessee, it’s easy to imagine a big Republican Senate primary field: A Senate vacancy doesn’t come along often, and there are a ton of potential candidates, including some current and former members of the U.S. House. One key factor is that unlike several other Southern states, Tennessee does not have a runoff in the primary or the general. So if the field is big enough, the eventual winner might not even need to crack 40%, which makes the race more enticing to enter. Watch to see if Senate Leadership Fund, the Mitch McConnell-backed establishment Republican group that spent millions in Alabama only to see appointed Sen. Luther Strange (R) lose handily, wades into this race if it appears as though a pitchfork-wielding candidate is a threat to win. We also have to watch to see what the president does and whether he and McConnell are on the same page. Tennessee is a state that has often produced establishment-flavored Republicans like Lamar Alexander, Bill Frist, Howard Baker, Corker, and others. But Alexander turned in a fairly weak performance in the 2014 primary against an unheralded Tea Party challenger, and perhaps this is the cycle for the far-right to produce a GOP Senate nominee in Tennessee.

Tennessee has become blood-red in recent years and the Republican nominee should be a significant favorite, and even though the seat is now open, we’re keeping our rating there as Safe Republican. However, Corker’s retirement does slightly crack open the window for Democrats, but we’re going to wait and see how the race develops before making the race even Likely Republican, let alone moving it to a more competitive rating than that. Alabama and Tennessee have become fairly similar politically in recent years, so perhaps the Alabama special election in December will tell us something about Tennessee’s regular election next year. If Doug Jones (D) can’t truly threaten Moore, who is probably a below-average Republican candidate given his controversies, it may be a sign that even in a promising national environment, these two states (and several others in the South) are simply too Republican now for Democrats to compete in.

Kyle Kondik