Politics n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles.—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, 1906.
Although Texas politics currently is not quite as volatile as Alabama’s, the controversial election for the U.S. Senate between Republican Roy Moore and Democrat Doug Jones is a mirror of our own state’s political condition—and a reflection of why many in the nation are sick of both major political parties.
Moore has been accused of preying upon and molesting teenage girls during his days as a bachelor (accusations he has denied), but Moore still has the support of President Trump and many other national Republicans. Meanwhile, other, more rational Republicans, such as 2012 party presidential nominee Mitt Romney, are left complaining in impotent frustration. And on the flip side, Jones is a former federal prosecutor with an outstanding record, but his party is an empty shell in Alabama, a drag on his candidacy. Jones’s best hope of winning today’s election rests less with his party than on Republican leaders urging their faithful to write in a Republican—any Republican—rather than cast a vote for Moore.
To complete the comparison between Alabama and Texas, all we have to do is replace Roy Moore with the phrase “bathroom bill.” Then substitute the anchor on Doug Jones candidacy with the Texas Democratic Party’s struggle to find A-team candidates to challenge Republican Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick. The result is the same dance in a different state.
Let’s start with the comparison of the state Democratic parties. Here’s what a couple of national publications have said about the Democrats in Alabama, starting with the New York Times.
Given the party’s dismal standing in the state, Mr. Jones has largely tried to avoid advertising his out-of-state connections. He has presented himself as an independent-minded lawman and canceled a fund-raising trip to Washington to avoid stirring controversy at home. Despite Mr. Moore’s problems, the Republican has led in recent polls, and Mr. Jones’s party label could well prove an insurmountable obstacle.
Then there is this from another Times story:
“I don’t think the Lord Jesus could win as a Democrat in Alabama,” said Brad Chism, who runs a Democratic communications firm in Mississippi that has conducted surveys of female voters in Alabama in recent weeks. “They’re just waiting for the Republican Party to tell them how they’re going to fix this.”
Alabama Republicans who are looking for an alternative to Mr. Moore are turned off by the Democrats over a constellation of issues — Supreme Court nominations, the scope of federal regulation, the fact that a Democrat would probably stymie President Trump’s agenda and the general sense that the national Democratic brand is in conflict with white Southern culture. But the obstacle that voters most commonly bring up, from the college town of Tuscaloosa to suburban Birmingham to Mr. Moore’s home county in northeast Alabama, is Mr. Jones’s stance on abortion.
Politico reported it this way:
In an attempt to keep the national Democratic Party at arm’s length — and thereby not scare away Republicans — Jones canceled a fundraising trip to Washington this week, skipping an event that would have put him in a room with high-profile Democratic leaders like California Sen. Kamala Harris. Meanwhile, national-level Democrats are plying their hero-in-the-making with advice, money and tweets — without crossing the line into being a public, backfiring nuisance.
If Jones pulls off an upset victory in Alabama today, it will be because Alabama Republicans either did not vote or voted for write-in candidates, disrupting the GOP advantage. It’s no secret that Alabama and Texas went Republican years ago. The last time either state gave its vote majority to a Democratic presidential candidate was Jimmy Carter, in 1976. A Democrat has not won a statewide election in Texas since 1994. Earlier this year, the Democratic-oriented Progress Texas released a statistical report called Flipping Texas in 2018. The report shows Republican voter turnout has essentially been stagnant from one presidential election to the next, but Democratic turnout has been growing. The report optimistically points to the idea that Democratic turnout eventually will surpass that of Republicans.
But to flip a state, you have to have strong candidates. This year, no mayors or members of the Legislature have risked filing for statewide office. U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio was recruited for both a U.S. Senate run or a campaign for governor; he passed on both. U.S. Rep. Robert “Beto” O’Rourke of El Paso filed for Senate, but he had a self-imposed term limit that made jumping into this race easier. Of the three main Democratic candidates for governor—Houston businessman Andrew White, Dallas gay bar owner Jeffrey Payne, and Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez—all will start the race with a lack of statewide name identification. Democrat Mike Collier is running to challenge Patrick, but he lost a previous race for state comptroller.
Lightning could strike for any of these candidates, but that is relying on forces out of your control to win. Just as Jones cannot count on his party to create a victory for him in Alabama, major statewide candidates in Texas cannot count on the Democratic brand to carry them to victory here.
Now, let’s turn to the similarities between Roy Moore and the bathroom bill. President Trump has thrown his full support behind Moore, despite the weight of the evidence against him. Why? Because winning is everything. “Democrats refusal to give even one vote for massive Tax Cuts is why we need Republican Roy Moore to win in Alabama,” Trump tweeted. “We need his vote on stopping crime, illegal immigration, Border Wall, Military, Pro Life, V.A., Judges 2nd Amendment and more. No to Jones, a Pelosi/Schumer Puppet!”
Romney responded on Twitter: “Roy Moore in the US Senate would be a stain on the GOP and on the nation. Leigh Corfman and other victims are courageous heroes. No vote, no majority is worth losing our honor, our integrity.”
But just as Roy Moore has been toxic for Alabama politics, the bathroom bill did the same here. The legislation promoted by Patrick, and eventually by Abbott as well, was designed more to enrage social conservative voters than it was about any meaningful public safety issue. Retiring House Speaker Joe Straus opposed the bill and gave cover to his members who did not want to vote on it. Essentially, every Chamber of Commerce in the state, as well as the umbrella organization, the Texas Association of Business, not to mention a slew of major corporations, opposed the bill. The bathroom bill died in a special session, but not before so-called reasonable Republicans started wondering what had happened to their party.
The result of these dynamics is that Americans distrust both political parties. A CNN survey from last month found the favorable view of the Democratic Party nationally to be 37 percent, the lowest level in a quarter century. The Republicans fared worse at 30 percent, the lowest point since 1992. Millennials feel better about the Democratic Party than the Republicans, but only 43 percent had a favorable view of the Democrats. California gave Democrat Hillary Clinton the majority of her margin of victory in the popular vote in last year’s presidential campaign, but a new survey from the Public Policy Institute of California found a solid majority in that state believes the nation is headed in the wrong direction, and both parties are to blame.
Sixty-two percent of Republicans in the poll said it’s time for a third party to rival the powers that be, compared with 59% of Democrats. Not surprisingly, the sentiment is even stronger among “independent” California voters who don’t register with a party — 72% said the two big political parties aren’t making the grade.
In all other subsets of voters — by age, ethnicity, high school or college graduates and more — just 36% or fewer think the two-party system is working. The message seems loud and clear.
Meanwhile, an October survey released by the Texas Tribune/University of Texas found that 61 percent of Texas’s voters believe the nation is on the wrong track, mostly a feeling held by Democrats and independents. But even among Republicans, only 49 percent said the nation is headed in the right direction. Their perspective on the state was almost evenly divided, although self-identified Republicans held a strong belief that the state is headed in the right direction.
The underlying problem is that neither party wants to grow. In one of his exit interviews with us, Straus noted that the Republican Party activists want to shrink the party. That way, a small group of people with an agenda that is not necessarily mainstream can control the process. On the Democratic side last year, much of the interparty opposition to Bernie Sanders and his supporters held that they were not real Democrats and didn’t belong in the party. Instead of just beating Sanders fair and square—which the Clinton team mostly did—and embracing the Sanders supporters for the general election, a we-don’t-want-you hangover emerged.
State ballot access laws have largely rigged the game to continue the hegemony of the two-party system, but as we careen toward the end of 2017, both parties are at a risk of implosion. And with that, they risk losing public faith in our governing institutions.