9th Time’s a Charm: Can Democrats Win Alabama’s US Senate Special Election?

Only five of 55 U.S. Senate partisan winning streaks of eight in a row have been halted in the subsequent contest during the direct election era

When Roy Moore defeated establishment pick and incumbent Luther Strange in Alabama’s GOP U.S. Senate primary election runoff last month, there was cautious talk that the nomination of the controversial former state supreme court chief justice could have pried an opening for Democratic nominee Doug Jones to pull off a victory in the December election.

Such a win, of course, would be a monumental upset in the deep red state where Republicans have won 43 of 52 statewide races this century including 25 in a row since Democrat Lucy Baxley’s 2008 victory for the state Public Service Commission.

Talk of a possible Jones victory perhaps began in earnest last week, however, when a FOX News poll (of registered voters) showed the two nominees locked in a tie, each garnering 42 percent.

Republicans have won each of the last eight U.S. Senate elections in the Yellowhammer State, tied with Kentucky for the 10th longest current GOP streak in the country behind Kansas (31), Wyoming (16), Utah (15), Idaho (14), Mississippi (12), Oklahoma (11), Texas (10), Arizona (nine), and Tennessee (nine).

So just how unusual would it be for Democrats to end this winning streak in 2017?

Smart Politics examined the nearly 1,900 direct elections to the U.S. Senate over the last 100+ years and found that there have been 55 Democratic or Republican winning streaks of eight elections in a row, only five of which were ended in the next election.

Democrats and Republicans have succeeded in extending their electoral winning streaks of eight in a row to nine during each of the last 14 such attempts since 2000:

  • Massachusetts Democrats in 2000 (won eight in a row from 1976-1996)
  • New Jersey Democrats in 2000 (1976-1996)
  • Alaska Republicans in 2002 (1978-1998)
  • Idaho Republicans in 2002 (1978-1998)
  • New Hampshire Republicans in 2002 (1978-1998)
  • North Dakota Democrats in 2004 (1982-2000)
  • Maryland Democrats in 2006 (1982-2004)
  • Mississippi Republicans in 2008 (1984-2006)
  • Texas Republicans in 2012 (1990-2008)
  • California Democrats in 2012 (1992-2010)
  • Oklahoma Republicans in 2014 (1992-2010)
  • Tennessee Republicans in 2014 (1994-2012)
  • Arizona Republicans in 2016 (1992-2012)
  • New York Democrats in 2016 (1994-2012)

The most recent U.S. Senate winning streak of eight in a row that has come to an end took place in Indiana in 1998.

Indiana Republicans rattled off eight consecutive victories with Dick Lugar (1976, 1982, 1988, 1994), Dan Quayle (1980, 1986), and Dan Coats (1988, 1992) during an 18-year stretch.

After Coats’ (first) retirement in 1998, former two-term Democratic Governor Evan Bayh easily defeated Fort Wayne Mayor Paul Helmke by 28.9 points.

Each of the four previous instances in which eight-election streaks came to an end took place more than 35 years ago:

  • Ohio, 1956: After losing eight in a row from 1938-1954, Democratic Governor Frank Lausche unseated Senator George Bender with a 5.8-point win
  • New Jersey, 1958: Democrats also lost eight straight in the Garden State from 1938-1954 but former Congressman Harrison Williams won the first of four terms with a 4.5-point open seat victory over 10-term U.S. Representative Robert Kean
  • Minnesota, 1978: Republicans bounced back from eight consecutive losses from 1954-1976 with two wins that November – attorney Dave Durenberger’s 26.9-point victory over sports franchise mogul Bob Short in a special election and attorney and businessman Rudy Boschwitz’s 16.2-point win over former DFL governor (and ‘self-appointed’ Senator) Wendell Anderson
  • Wisconsin, 1980: After Democrats reeled off eight wins from 1957-1976, former Congressman Bob Kasten knocked three-term Senator Gaylord Nelson out of office by 1.9 points

With only 9.0 percent of eight-cycle winning streaks ending in the direct election era (five of 55), the odds of a Democratic victory in Alabama seem long.

And they seem even longer upon further examination of these five examples listed above.

Each of these five previous instances occurred in states where the party enduring the losing streak had put together a number of fairly competitive performances along the way.

That has not been the case in Alabama, where Democrats have come within single digits of winning just once during these eight losses (Jeff Sessions’ 7.0-point win over State Senator Roger Bedford in 1996) and within 20 points in only one other race (Sessions’ 18.8-point victory against Auditor Susan Parker in 2002).

By contrast, 17 of the 40 previous elections in the five aforementioned states that saw an end to these streaks were decided by single digits (42.5 percent) and 26 of 40 were decided by less than 20 points (65.0 percent).

Overall, Alabama Republicans have enjoyed an average victory margin of 33.8 points during their current winning streak, compared to just 7.6 points for the GOP in the aforementioned New Jersey streak, 8.0 points for the Republicans in Ohio, 17.3 points by the DFL in Minnesota, 19.2 points for the GOP in Indiana, and 22.4 points for the Democrats in Wisconsin.

Kentucky’s eight-cycle GOP winning streak will be put to the test in 2020 when Mitch McConnell is up for reelection. An eight-cycle Democratic streak is at stake in 2018 in Delaware with Tom Carper seeking another term.

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2 Comments on "9th Time’s a Charm: Can Democrats Win Alabama’s US Senate Special Election?"

  1. 1. CURRENT (‘active’) R winning streak: For AK, it goes back only to 2014, when current senator Sullivan barely edged out 1-term incumbent Mark Begich [The official party-backed nominees lost in 2008 (to a D), and 2010 (to a write-in independent)].
    2. Hopeful (or distressing) remarks by both Biden and Kaine -as well as that FOX poll- notwithstanding, the DEMs do face long odds. On the other hand, Jones’ odds do not seem to be steeper than those faced by BHO in his ’08 nomination bid, against the presumed nominee of his party, or by Begich against T F Stevens, when he would stunningly terminate the victorious post-Watergate streak of the Rs.

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