Here are a few things we learned from the dramatic victory of Doug Jones over Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate special election last night:
1. Special election results are often over-interpreted as political harbingers, and this particular election would no doubt have turned out much differently if Republicans hadn't nominated Roy Moore. At the same time, it's fair to say that the outcome in Alabama constitutes one more data point indicating a major shift in the national partisan climate over the past year—when combined with the New Jersey and Virginia elections in November, the results of other scattered special elections elsewhere, and the increasingly pro-Democratic trend in the generic ballot and distribution of party identification in the population.
2. Moore really was one of the all-time worst candidates for major political office in a competitive race. Even before the sexual predation and assault accusations surfaced last month, he had almost lost an election for state supreme court in 2012 and was running ahead of Doug Jones by only about 10 points in a state Trump had won by 28 the year before. Moore raised very little money and barely campaigned in public, leaving the state entirely over the final weekend before the election. (He also demonstrated very little understanding of major issues that he would be voting on as a senator.)
3. Whether your post-election analysis of choice emphasizes the successful Democratic mobilization of the African-American vote on Jones's behalf or the defection from Moore of traditionally Republican well-to-do suburban whites, both developments represent major political stories (and both were critical to Jones's chances of victory in a normally safe Republican state). Moore was the kind of figure who not only provoked energetic opposition from the Democratic base but also failed to inspire unity (and similarly enthusiastic turnout rates) among the members of his own party. The biggest danger for national Republicans heading into 2018 is that Donald Trump shares these attributes as well.
4. It's hard to beat somebody with nobody in politics, and Democrats have nominated a lot of nobodies for office in red states lately. (The last time that this particular seat was up for election in 2014, in fact, the Democratic candidate was literally nobody.) The party was very fortunate to have a viable candidate on hand in Jones (who needed to jump in the race before knowing that Moore would wind up being the Republican nominee), demonstrating the importance of recruiting high-quality candidates even when most voters can be predicted to simply vote the party line. The pro-Democratic drift of well-educated, prosperous suburbanites is particularly key for Democratic chances in future elections, from Congress all the way down to the state and local level. Well-educated, prosperous people tend to be strong potential candidates for political office, and the suburbs tend to be electorally pivotal in most parts of the country. Democratic gains in the Virginia legislature last month, for example, mostly occurred in suburban districts that were already shifting Democratic in the presidential vote but where veteran Republican incumbent legislators were previously unused to facing serious challengers; a groundswell of attractive Democratic candidates is necessary for the party to take full advantage of the favorable national environment that it is likely to have in 2018.
5. The flipping of the Alabama seat will have only minor implications for the operation of the Senate over the next year; assuming that Republicans manage to push their tax reform bill through Congress before Jones is seated, any other legislative action will require 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. But the prospect of a Democratic majority in the Senate after the 2018 election is now quite realistic, requiring a net gain of two seats (with Nevada and Arizona the most obvious targets) rather than the previous three. Jones's victory also increases the odds of a 50-50 Senate in 2019–2020 with Susan Collins of Maine serving as the pivotal vote—not as dramatic a shift as an outright Democratic majority would be, but still a very real complication for the Trump administration's legislative goals and executive/judicial appointment objectives heading into the 2020 election.
6. For this reason, it's pretty silly to argue that Republicans are better off with Moore losing the election. True, a Senator Moore would have been an extremely awkward presence in the Capitol, and dilemmas about how to handle the accusations against him would have created a lot of headaches for Moore's fellow Republican senators. But every seat is incalculably precious in our current partisan environment, and Mitch McConnell would presumably rather be a majority leader with Moore sniping at him from the back benches than risk losing control of the chamber entirely.
7. There's a lot of anger being directed against Steve Bannon by Washington Republicans today for supposedly saddling the party with Moore, and for vowing to help other similarly-styled candidates win Republican primaries next year. Not only does this line of argument exaggerate Bannon's personal influence over an Alabama primary election that Moore—already a well-known figure in the state—won by nearly 10 points, but it also ignores the fact that Republicans have been regularly nominating controversial if not toxic candidates for high office since the beginning of the Obama administration. The bigger problem, of which Bannon's rise is more symptom than cause, is that an ideologically-oriented party is particularly susceptible to popular appeals based on doctrinal purity and punch-the-left confrontationalism over other attributes such as electability, policy command, and general suitability for office. It's probably true that the conservative media bears a lot of responsibility for this trend, but blaming Bannon or Breitbart alone is overly simplistic—and convenient. After all, Roy Moore was a popular conservative hero back when Steve Bannon was still a Hollywood movie producer.