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News Brief: Democrat Doug Jones Wins Alabama's Special Election


Last night, I guess we can say Alabama politics, but also national politics, shifted a bit.


Yeah, you bet. Democrat Doug Jones won a vacant Senate seat in deep-red Alabama.


DOUG JONES: I have always believed that the people of Alabama had more in common than to divide us.

INSKEEP: Jones defeated Roy Moore, who was accused of misconduct and assault against teenagers when he was in his 30s. Moore last night did not concede.


ROY MOORE: When the vote is this close, it's not over.

GREENE: OK. Our co-host Rachel Martin is in Birmingham, Ala., covering this at member station WBHM.

Hi, Rachel.


Hey, good morning, David.

GREENE: So this is a huge upset. I mean, Steve just said this is deep-red Alabama. So, I mean, do Doug Jones supporters feel like they're part of a historic moment?

MARTIN: Indeed, they are totally elated, as you would imagine - a huge win for them, the first time Alabama has elected a Democrat to the Senate in 25 years. And yes, this is about two candidates - Doug Jones, who beat the Republican, Roy Moore, in this race - but for many African-Americans in Alabama, who turned out in record numbers, this was something that was way bigger than any one candidate, way bigger than Doug Jones, even. Last night, we were at this bar in Birmingham where young black activists were watching the returns come in, and this is what it sounded like when their chief organizer, a woman named DeJuana Thompson, took the stage.


DEJUANA THOMPSON: To God be the glory...


THOMPSON: ...For the things that he has done.


THOMPSON: ...For the victories that he has won.


THOMPSON: Woke Vote. Woke Vote.

MARTIN: She's chanting the name of the organization. They are Woke Vote. And this result was absolutely about black votes. Turnout among African-Americans was around 30 percent. Doug Jones got close to the same percentage of the black vote in Alabama as Barack Obama did in 2012.

GREENE: Wow. Well, I mean, one of the other storylines as well was Republican voters feeling conflicted, given what their candidate had been accused of. Could you hear that in Republican voices?

MARTIN: Right. Absolutely. Republicans we talked to - some of them said they just could not bring themselves to vote for Judge Moore because of the sexual abuse allegations, so they just stayed home. They just stayed away. Others defected altogether, and that was the case for this young guy we met last night. His name is Jacob Bobo. Listen to this.

JACOB BOBO: Alabamians saw - you know, with Roy Moore, he was representing maybe an old Alabama, but he just wasn't representing the Alabama now. And I think Doug Jones is representing a progressive, a now, a new Alabama.

GREENE: Oh, it's so interesting to hear that voice. But I gather not all Republicans felt that way. I mean, Roy Moore had his supporters in that state, clearly.

MARTIN: Yeah. And they're disheartened, as you would imagine. One woman I spoke with is convinced that there was a unified campaign by establishment Republicans in D.C. to ruin Roy Moore. She never believed the allegations. She thinks Moore was unfairly maligned. And at the same time, she said that she has to believe that for whatever reason, God wanted this result. And so she herself is going to try to move on.

GREENE: Well, as this story moves on, is this race over? I mean, Roy Moore is dangling this idea of a recount. Is there a chance of that?

MARTIN: Have - we should say, this is really in line with who he is, right? Like, this is a guy who, you tell him, you can't do this, and he says, watch me. And he's done that his whole public career. He has not conceded yet. His camp says they want a recount. But this was not close enough to trigger an automatic recount. He'd have to pay for it, if it happens, and it would cost a lot of money. Meanwhile, President Trump has already tweeted his congratulations to Doug Jones. And Jones is already talking about what he wants to do when he gets to Washington and becomes the next Democratic senator.

INSKEEP: I want to mention one more factor. When we look at the numbers in this race, 22,000 or so people - 22,000 cast write-in ballots, like Richard Shelby, the Republican senator - a lot of them, presumably, conservatives who couldn't do it for Roy Moore. 22,000 - and Roy Moore lost, according to the tally right now, by 21,000 votes.


MARTIN: Right.

GREENE: And Rachel, as you said, a lot of Republicans just decided to stay home and not vote at all. Our co-host Rachel Martin at WBHM, member station in Birmingham, Ala. Rachel, thanks.

MARTIN: Thanks, guys.

GREENE: All right, let's talk now about what this win really does mean for national politics.

INSKEEP: Yeah - because Doug Jones' arrival in Washington shrinks the Republicans' majority in the Senate to 51-49. That could imperil Republican legislative priorities. And then there's President Trump. Roy Moore, like Donald Trump, was accused of sexual assault or misconduct by numerous women, denied it all. Trump gradually became strident in his defense of Roy Moore, but just enough Alabama voters did not follow his endorsement.

GREENE: And let's bring in NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Hey, Tam.


GREENE: So what does this look like from Washington? I mean, as Steve said, the president backed Roy Moore - didn't win. How's Trump reacting?

KEITH: Well, and it also depends on where you sit on - in Washington as to how this is playing. President Trump, as Rachel said, sent out a tweet say - congratulating Doug Jones on a hard-fought victory, pointing to those write-in votes, saying they played a very big factor, but, quote, "a win is a win." And then he says, "the Republicans will have another shot at this seat in a very short period of time. It never ends!"

And to get to that point about the Republicans having another shot, this seat will open back up in 2020, and it's still Alabama, so Doug Jones may not have many of the advantages of incumbency that many incumbents had - have. I talked to one Trump ally who said that maybe this is the best possible outcome. He says, you know, we don't have to apologize for Moore, and Jones will win with less than 50 percent of the vote and will quickly fade away into 2020. That was that...

GREENE: Yeah, this political - the reality of Alabama's not going away when it comes to politics.

KEITH: Right, and President Trump won by more than 20 points not that many months ago.

GREENE: What is this? Is this a moment to look at the Republican Party? I mean, this - there was a deep division here. You had President Trump supporting Roy Moore. You had more establishment Republicans, including Mitch McConnell, at one point, calling for Moore to step down. Is this taking some of the wind out of the sails of the Trump faction?

KEITH: Yeah, so I was talking to another former Trump campaign adviser who is also aligned with Steve Bannon. And his message from this whole thing is that, quote, "Trump is surrounded by strangers and political ignoramuses. They embarrassed the president tonight." That was a former adviser, Sam Nunberg. So I don't think this debate's over yet.

GREENE: All right, NPR's Tamara Keith talking about the national implications of this election in Alabama. Tam, thanks, as always.

KEITH: You're welcome.


GREENE: All right, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has a message for North Korea.

INSKEEP: That message came yesterday while Tillerson was speaking at a think tank here in Washington.


REX TILLERSON: We're ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk, and we're ready to have the first meeting without precondition.

INSKEEP: He's talked about talking with North Korea before, including on this program. But here he is - Tillerson - saying first meeting, no preconditions - sounds like a chance for some diplomatic resolution over North Korea's nuclear program, but, well, really?

GREENE: Well, let's go to the region, and go to Seoul and our correspondent there, NPR's Elise Hu.

Hi, Elise.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Hey there.

GREENE: So are these remarks from Tillerson a big deal?

HU: Well, they're a big deal, and they're not. It seems like a big deal, at least rhetorically, because during the Obama administration, no secretary of state went as far as Tillerson to actually say out loud this willingness to sit down face to face with Pyongyang without precondition. Tillerson said, hey, we can talk about the weather or even whether the table is square or round, but not necessarily weapons to begin with. So it seems like a big deal.

GREENE: I think many of us would prefer them talk about more serious things than the weather. But that makes it sound like this is sort of a major overture.

HU: It does, and yet, it's not that significant in that the overture comes from Tillerson, whose credibility has been undermined by President Trump time and time again. He has signaled willingness to talk before - the secretary of state, that is. But then the president has come out and tweeted that talks won't work. So does Tillerson have the backing of the White House? North Koreans would need to know that this overture has the public backing of Trump. If it does, then this is a policy move that might mean something more. If it doesn't, then it's just Tillerson posturing.

GREENE: Well, we've had people on the program, Elise, people who follow the region, who have suggested that they saw this narrative coming, that the North would do a lot of threatening things, the hope being that they would be brought to the table in a respectful way. So how does the North respond to this now?

HU: Well, it's a big question. I mean, it's possible that they don't respond at all. Some folks are saying that. But right now, you know, talking about talking is still not actually talking...

GREENE: Right.

HU: ...You know, like those meetings about meetings, which any of us who work in an office know about. So now we're essentially looking for a public reaction from North Koreans to Tillerson's statement. Will they say, hey, yeah, we will talk about the weather and then go from there? It's also possible that North Koreans will publicly shoot this down and then back-channel diplomats will engage with the United States. But then again, this gets back to the original question of, who is Tillerson? Does Pyongyang believe Tillerson has credibility? And that's going to be a big question, too, in the event that Tillerson doesn't stay on as secretary of state, which some reports have indicated.

GREENE: All right, trying to understand this overture from Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state - NPR's Elise Hu on the line with us from Seoul. Elise, thanks, as always. We appreciate it.

HU: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC LAU'S "LAU'S LAMENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.