Doug Jones's Alabama Victory Proves Democrats Don't Have to Abandon Abortion Rights to Win

According to a popular narrative in the weeks leading up to Tuesday's U.S. Senate special election in Alabama, if Democratic candidate Doug Jones lost to an alleged sexual predator, it would be because of his position on abortion. 

Republican Roy Moore tried to use his opponent's abortion rights stance against him, even inventing a medical term, "full-term abortion," to paint Jones as a baby killer—a smear many thought Jones wouldn't be able to shake in ruby-red Alabama. 

Jones won anyway, and observers said his victory should be an important lesson for the Democratic Party.  

"The message Jones's victory sends is that you can win as a pro-choice candidate even in an electorate that's assumed to be pro-life," Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist and former senior spokesman for Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign, told Newsweek. "What you can't do is be something you're not. Doug Jones would have lost this race had he changed his position to try to pander to the electorate." 

Top Democrats wrestled with the question of whether the party should become more moderate on its abortion rights platform earlier this year, when Heath Mello, a former Nebraska state legislator with an anti-abortion past, ran on the Democratic ticket in the Omaha mayoral race. Mello had evolved on the issue, landing on the abortion rights side even before his mayoral bid. But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's insistence that an anti-abortion candidate could still be considered a member of the Democratic Party sparked fear that Democrats would abandon women's reproductive rights to win seats. 

There had been speculation that a Jones loss would have reignited these conversations within the party, convincing Democrats that abortion would be the issue that would cost them seats in 2018, and the Oval Office in 2020. 

"Will you be willing to find a candidate that would be willing to moderate their positions on things like abortion?" Republican commentator Amanda Carpenter asked CNN commentator Bakari Sellers Tuesday night. "That is why they will vote for someone like Roy Moore over any Democrat outright."

In an interview with Newsweek on Wednesday, Sellers made his answer clear.

"I don’t want us to have a more moderate policy point on abortion," Sellers said. "I want us to be progressive in this climate when you see a rising number of women talking about their experiences with harassment and abuse. We need to be a party that’s forward-thinking and visionary and not going backwards."

Doug-Jones Democratic candidate Doug Jones won the Alabama Senate race Tuesday night in spite of his opponent's attempts to remind voters of his pro-choice stance. Marvin Gentry/Reuters

Some polls suggested Moore may have overestimated the anti-abortion stance of his own supporters. A Clarity Campaign Labs poll, which surveyed voters before the allegations against Moore emerged, found that 18 percent of the Republican candidate's voters believed abortion should be legal in "all or most cases." Later, a Washington Post poll found that, when asked which candidate they trusted more to "handle the issue of abortion," voters were split between Moore and Jones. 

The fact is, supporting women's right to obtain safe and legal abortion isn't an unpopular stance: In 2017, about seven in 10 Americans say they support Roe v. Wade

"Roy Moore tried to make his race about criminalizing abortion," Planned Parenthood spokesperson Erica Sackin told Newsweek. "Women are sick and tired of seeing their rights dismissed. Criminalizing abortion is not a message that resonates with voters and it’s not something that’s going to win races."

Winning races is, of course, the top priority for Democrats—who are hoping to gain the strength in numbers to more effectively resist President Donald Trump's agenda. Continuing to support women's reproductive freedoms, Ferguson said, is one way they can do that. 

"If we are going to generate the enthusiasm we need to win the 2020 election, we need to engage Democrats about what it means to be a Democrat," Ferguson said. "In the end, we are a pro-choice party that should be working to elect pro-choice candidates."