Even before Democrat Jon Ossoff came within a whisker of winning the nonpartisan primary outright, his campaign was raking in cash. For the runoff between Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel, the national parties kicked into high gear. Out-of-state money flooded in. Some $55 million was spent, making it the most expensive House race ever. Both the president and vice president headlined events for Handel. Trump bashed Ossoff on Twitter. The national media hawked the battle as a test of suburban Trumpism. The sixth-district electorate took notice, with an unprecedented level of early voting and around half of registered voters turning out overall. In the end, Handel won, the seat stayed red, and the loss was portrayed as a crushing blow to Democrats’ morale.
Also vexing to the blue team was the May special election for Montana’s at-large House seat—a seat that has been red for two decades. Even so, the race drew more notice than usual, in part because Republican Greg Gianforte was seen as a particularly Trumpian nominee: a self-proclaimed “drain the swamp” outsider with a business background and in-your-face manner. (More tantalizing still, Gianforte held minor investments in Russian companies.)
Vice President Pence and Donald Trump Jr. hit the trail for Gianforte, and the president recorded a robocall for him. Then, on the eve of the election, Gianforte physically attacked a reporter from The Guardian newspaper, and wound up charged with assault. The political world went berserk, chattering about whether Montanans would back the Republican despite—or maybe even because of—his thuggish behavior. (It’s hard to get more Trumpian than picking literal fights with the media.) They did, dashing Democrats’ hopes once more.
By the time Alabama’s Senate election rolled around, the entire nation seemed to be spoiling for a brawl. Alabama did not disappoint. Most likely, the race would have generated buzz in any climate, thanks to Republican Roy Moore’s unique profile: the scripture-quoting, culture-warring judge twice booted from office for disregarding the law was being accused by multiple women of teen sexual predation. (That level of Southern Gothic weirdness would have impressed Faulkner.) Former federal prosecutor Doug Jones, meanwhile, made the ideal foil as a sober, boring, moderate sort of Democrat.
That said, the Trump factor kicked things up a notch. Both political teams began freaking out over what Democrats possibly capturing one of the nation’s reddest Senate seats signaled about the overall political climate. The punditocracy, meanwhile, speculated endlessly about how such a loss would impact a Republican congressional majority already fretting over how Trump will affect its midterm prospects, not to mention the party’s long-term brand.
On a still more basic level, a Senate nominee accused of sexual predation being championed by a sitting president himself facing multiple allegations of sexual predation made for an irresistible soap opera. Money and campaign volunteers poured into Alabama from all over. The national media flooded the zone, becoming both a key player and a key target for Moore, who claimed journalists were paying women to falsely accuse him. By voting day, Moore’s fate was being pitched as an indicator of not only the political but also the moral health of the entire GOP. Election night was covered with the sort breathlessness once reserved for presidential contests. And when it was all over, Jones’s victory spurred celebration not only among Democrats but among anti-Trump Republicans anxious about the direction of the party.