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5 takeaways from Alabama’s startling special election

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — A Democrat has been elected to the Senate from Alabama for the first time in a quarter-century, and the political earthquake has just begun.

A combination of hyper-charged Democratic turnout and depressed conservative numbers handed Doug Jones a Senate seat no one thought he would win just weeks ago. And it capped a campaign that saw arch-conservative jurist Roy Moore, an accused child molester, fall short in a state Donald Trump won by 28 points just 13 months earlier.

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The shock result presented Republicans a brief opportunity for relief, as they would not have to stand by Moore. But Election Night reshaped the political landscape: one in which Republicans’ majority in the Senate is down to one seat, and in which one of the most conservative states in the nation has a Democrat representing it.

Here are POLITICO’s five takeaways after Alabama’s wild, ugly, controversial, and historically unparalleled Senate race:

Bannon’s bruising

Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon went all-in for Moore — and then some.

Bannon spoke at two rallies for Moore over the past week, campaigned for him during the GOP runoff, and spoke at the victory party when Moore captured the GOP nomination. Bannon was in attendance at the Alabama Republican’s Tuesday victory party and had been expected to speak in the event of a Moore victory – plans that were ultimately scrapped.

Moore’s loss deals a serious blow to the anti-establishment campaign Bannon had been planning for next year’s midterms, one that was predicated on defeating incumbents and other mainstream Republicans that are being propped up by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Alabama race was Bannon’s first stand. While Bannon backed Moore in the GOP primary, McConnell was behind appointed Sen. Luther Strange.

Where the former Trump adviser takes his fight now is an open question. He’s been courting major donors across the country in hopes of building financial support. Moore’s loss could well make Bannon’s pitch more difficult.

The ever-defiant Bannon may not back down, but Moore’s loss gave ammunition to McConnell allies, who called the Alabama race proof that Bannon’s insurgent favorites were unelectable.

“This is a brutal reminder that candidate quality matters regardless of where you are running,” the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund super PAC said after the race was called. “Steve Bannon cost us a critical Senate seat in one of the most Republican states in the country.”

What black voter problem?

All the chatter across Alabama for the final week of the race focused on Democrats’ alleged problems turning out black voters. But after a blockbuster turnout operation designed by Jones’ campaign and national Democrats, African-American voters turned out in massive numbers for the former U.S. attorney.

His sweeping victories across the state’s so-called “Black Belt” rivaled only his massive victories in the state’s largely African-American cities, like Birmingham and Montgomery. Relying on help from local surrogates like Rep. Terri Sewell and Birmingham mayor-elect Randall Woodfin, Jones relentlessly campaigned in those zones.

The result swept aside weeks of hand-wringing here and pointed to an optimistic future for a party that wasn’t sure it would be able to bring black voters to the polls in sufficient numbers without Barack Obama atop the ticket.

But with strong minority support energized by both hatred of Donald Trump and Roy Moore, Jones provided Democrats with a model for 2018, even in the deep South.

Trump loses capital

The president put his political capital on the line – and lost.

Ignoring pleas from McConnell and other senior Republicans, Trump jumped in for Moore. Just days before the election, he went to the Florida Panhandle, just outside the Alabama state line, to campaign for Moore. He also cut a robo-call for the candidate and he tweeted his support.

Yet his endorsement wasn’t enough to pull the embattled candidate over the line, just like when he backed Strange in the primary.

Doug Jones is pictured. | Getty Images

White House officials recognized the risk. As the race entered its final days, the administration reviewed polling showing the race close.

But Trump was skeptical of the women who had accused Moore of sexual misconduct, and he didn’t want to cede the seat to Democrats. Plus, administration officials said, he liked the idea of helping out a candidate like Moore who had been abandoned by the establishment wing of the party.

That the loss took place in Alabama only adds salt to the wound: the conservative state helped to catapult Trump’s 2016 primary win.

Revenge of the soccer mom

The other primary reason for Jones’ win was strong antipathy toward Moore among white, suburban, college-educated conservatives. Many of them chose to sit out the election or follow the lead of Sen. Richard Shelby and write in an option other than Moore. That follows the pattern of Republican under-performance in the suburbs during earlier races in 2017, and it creates a clear opportunity for Democrats in 2018 — especially given their enormous turnouts.

While Mitt Romney won white college-educated women by 55 points in 2012, Moore won them by just 11 on Tuesday, according to exit polling data.

Alabama’s case was unique: Moore was especially vulnerable to desertion from moderates and conservatives due to his decades of controversy even before the shocking accusations of sexual misconduct surfaced. But discomfort with Trump among educated voters outside of cities — especially women — has now propelled Democratic candidates to closer-than-expected margins or victories in multiple races so far this year, from Virginia’s gubernatorial race to the close special U.S. House race outside of Atlanta in June.

Now, both parties are expecting to focus heavily on those so-called soccer moms for the first time in years during the midterms — believing that Alabama’s campaign points to a broader movement away from Republicans.

“That’s why Ralph Northam went from a narrow lead in Virginia to an 8, 9 point win. That’s why Jones has over-performed where a Democrat should be,” said Zac McCrary, a Democratic pollster based in Montgomery. “You do have to ask yourself, if you’re a Republican, if you’re on the verge of losing a critical part of the Republican coalition.”

Democrats to Trump: Watch out

Jones’ euphoric victory party in Birmingham on Tuesday night quickly spilled over into a dance party, reflecting the kind of rumbling Democratic enthusiasm that’s punctuated statewide races across the country in 2017.

Alabama’s historic turnout on Tuesday mirrored enormous numbers for Democratic voters in both Virginia’s and New Jersey’s gubernatorial races even after muddy campaigns in all three states — and party operatives are now lunging to capitalize on that energy ahead of the 2018 midterms.

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Riding what they are increasingly convinced could be a blue tsunami powered by millennials, furious women, and minority voters, Democrats are newly eyeing opportunities to take back the House and Senate, as well as governors’ mansions from Maine to Arizona.

The eye-popping turnout numbers coming from Democratic strongholds like Birmingham and Montgomery in Alabama — a state that hadn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since the early ’90s — are giving Republicans reason to sweat in the Trump era, as they face up to a potential backlash.

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