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Monday, September 21, 2020

How the Senate’s most endangered Democrat thinks he can win, again

Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) speaks with the press following a vote in the Senate impeachment trial that acquitted President Donald Trump of all charges on February 5, 2020 in Washington, DC. | Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

Doug Jones wants Democrats to rethink their approach to campaigning in the South.

Sen. Doug Jones is redefining what it means to be a Southern Democrat. Whether he can continue to do so after November is an open question.

Jones is easily the most endangered Senate Democrat on the ballot this year, just for the fact that he represents Alabama — a state where President Donald Trump still enjoys his highest net approval rating in the country. Jones surprised the political world by winning a 2017 special election, but many political observers think it’s a foregone conclusion that he will lose his reelection. Still, Jones says don’t count him out just yet.

“There’s a lot that I know that they don’t,” he told Vox in a recent interview.

Jones and his campaign admit he’s the underdog in the race against Republican and former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville, but they think the competition is closer than public polls suggest. Whereas an August Morning Consult poll showed Jones 17 points behind Tuberville, the Jones campaign’s internal polling suggests the Democrat is just a few points behind.

“Does it bother us that the same punditry is saying Alabama, no way?” Jones campaign adviser Joe Trippi told Vox. “Yeah, we’ve heard that before.”

 Alex Wong/Getty Images
Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) reads a copy of The Hill newspaper prior to a news conference, February 15, 2018, in Washington, DC.

To have a shot at winning, Jones needs more than the unprecedented African American turnout that boosted him in 2017; he’ll also need about one-third of white voters. With more registered Republicans than Democrats in Alabama, he’ll also need to pull in crossover voters who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and will probably vote for the president again in 2020 — including suburban women.

Jones’s surprise win three years ago “gave Democrats in the Deep South some hope,” Cook Political Report Senate editor Jessica Taylor told Vox.

Both Republican and Democratic strategists in Alabama told Vox that Jones is running a highly organized campaign this time, while Tuberville has little presence in the state — largely running an ad-based campaign emphasizing his closeness to Trump (Tuberville’s campaign didn’t respond to Vox’s request for comment). While Republicans in the state expect Tuberville to prevail, some think Jones could keep the margins close.

“I think it’s going to be a close election and Republicans need to take it seriously,” Alabama Republican strategist Chris Brown told Vox.

The fact we’re even talking about a Democratic incumbent having an electoral path in Alabama, of all places, tells you this is an unusual election year. Look no further than the raft of newly competitive Senate races in the South: North Carolina is hotly contested, both Georgia races are up for grabs, and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham is facing an increasingly stiff challenge from Democrat Jaime Harrison. And even though few expect the Senate races in Alabama’s neighboring states Louisiana and Mississippi to flip blue, there are dynamic Democratic candidates in both races.

“I think Democrats for too long ... let Republicans define them on a lot of social issues,” Jones told Vox. “Republicans in the South have been great about exploiting the divisions and Democrats have let them do it. No more.”

What Jones needs to build on from 2017 to win in 2020

Everything went right for Doug Jones in the 2017 special election.

As the campaign of former Alabama judge Roy Moore imploded after four women accused him of preying on them when they were teenagers, Jones was quietly running a campaign focused on jobs and Medicaid expansion. Jones eschewed the national spotlight, but the anti-Moore sentiment in the state and the potential of electing a Democrat were enough to help him build a grassroots army powered by Black women.

During the special election, 98 percent of Black women — compared to 93 percent of Black men, 34 percent of white women, and 26 percent of white men — backed Jones over Moore. That overwhelming support, combined with depressed Republican turnout, helped Jones secure a narrow and shocking victory for Democrats, who hadn’t won a Senate seat in Alabama for 25 years.

“We know what we did to turn out those voters in 2017,” Trippi said. “There was no party ‘get out the vote’ apparatus; it was built by the Jones campaign.”

 Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Then-senatorial candidate Doug Jones takes a picture with voters outside of a polling station in Bessemer, Alabama, on December 12, 2017.

Even with those numbers, Jones notched just a 1.7-point win over Moore. He needs those same numbers in a high-turnout presidential election year. No one doubts Trump will win Alabama again in 2020, but Democrats in the state say they think the 2017 election showed Trump isn’t quite as popular as he used to be. Trump’s approval rating in the state hovering in the high to mid-50s, according to recent polls — a slight dip from 62 percent approval in 2016. Jones hopes some voters who pull the lever for Trump in 2020 stick with him, too.

“Obviously Biden’s not going to win the race, but we’re pretty sure this is going to be mid-teens, not a blowout like Hillary,” said Jones’s campaign pollster Paul Maslin, of the Montgomery-based ALG Research. “No one denies it’s a conservative state, no one denies Trump’s going to win, but it was a conservative state in 2017. It’s all pointing to a very close election.”

Republicans scoff at that idea.

“That’s the sound of staffers who need to motivate themselves to go to work every morning,” a Republican strategist told Vox.

Tommy Tuberville certainly doesn’t carry the political baggage that Moore does. He still has liabilities; the Jones campaign plans to hammer Tuberville over accusations of fraud stemming from a shuttered hedge fund he once co-owned. Tuberville was largely absent from in-person campaigning in the GOP primary and the general election and has a paltry $551,285 cash on hand, compared to more than $8 million in Jones’s war chest.

“They have a strategy; I’m not sure Tuberville does,” a Republican consultant in Alabama told Vox. “Tuberville doesn’t really campaign. He’s not showing up anywhere. He’s going to win this race with virtually no grassroots campaign.”

Former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville speaks to his supporters after he defeated Jeff Sessions in the Republican primary for US Senate on July 14, 2020, in Montgomery, Alabama.

Political observers in the state say they’re seeing similar energy to 2017, with Trump’s reelection bid firing up both Republican and Democratic bases. Jones is running a field strategy focused on boosting turnout in Jefferson County (encompassing Birmingham and its suburbs) and suburban areas around the state including outside Huntsville.

“The organizations on the ground seem just as engaged, and so we could see a form of Trump effect, where the heightened awareness of the importance of the coming presidential elections brings out Black voters in large numbers,” University of Alabama political science professor Utz McKnight told Vox.

Black women organizers, who helped turn out a staggering number of voters in 2017, are once again set to play a pivotal role. Organizer and Jefferson County Commissioner Sheila Tyson says the pandemic hasn’t dampened efforts to reach voters. With nationwide protests against racism and police brutality toward Black Americans, Tyson sees a heightened sense of urgency this cycle.

“They are shooting down Black men like life isn’t important to anybody but white people,” says Tyson. “The next bullet is going to be for your son, for your daughter, for your grandson. So what are you going to do?”

Much like in 2017, Tyson’s group, Black Women’s Roundtable, and several others are going door to door to make sure Alabamians are committed to voting this fall and aware of the requirements for mail-in balloting. Tyson’s group is focused on what’s known as Alabama’s “Black Belt,” a series of counties in the center of the state where the majority of constituents are Black.

“The only difference is that we wear masks,” Tyson told Vox of voter outreach this time around, adding that efforts this year have focused heavily on making sure people have the resources they need to vote by mail. “We are supplying the stamps; we are supplying the envelopes.”

Even though Democrats and Republicans in the state agree the race will be closer than expected, some Democrats in the state think Jones’s chances are ultimately dim. Even if Jones does everything right, Alabama is still tough political terrain.

“I think he would need those Roy Moore-type revelations; you would need Donald Trump to completely collapse,” said an Alabama Democratic operative.

Doug Jones isn’t your average Southern Democrat

The main Republican attack on Jones is that he’s a Democrat in a red state. Jones would agree.

“I think Democrats didn’t compete in the South for so, so long — trying to be Republican light or whatever you call it,” he told Vox. “We had a solid Democratic South in name only. It was never solid Democrat, it was a bunch of different factions of something called the Democratic Party.”

After his 2017 election win, Jones has stubbornly made his own way in the Senate. He certainly touts his bipartisan work with Republicans, including the Military Widow’s Tax Elimination Act, the Automotive Jobs Act, and the POWER Act. But Jones hasn’t gone out of his way to try to take Trump-friendly votes, voting against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation and voting to convict the president during the Senate’s February impeachment trial.

“I have votes that come to me on the floor of the Senate that Mitch McConnell picks for me, and some of those are tougher votes than others,” Jones said. “I think people tend to see this as a loyalty test for either Democrats or Republicans, and I don’t see it that way at all. I don’t pick and choose battles.”

Compared to more conservative members of the Senate Democratic caucus like Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ), who vote in line with Trump’s position about 52 percent of the time, Jones votes with Trump about 35 percent of the time, according to a vote tracker from FiveThirtyEight.

“I think of Manchin at least on cultural issues, is center/center right,” said Alabama Democratic strategist Zac McCrary. “Jones is certainly in his own way moderate and bipartisan, but certainly is not leaning into some of those things. He’s going to be the senator he wanted. He’s not going to twist himself into a pretzel; he’s going to do his own thing.”

 Anna Moneymaker/Pool/Getty Images
Sen.Doug Jones (D-AL) sits in a Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing on new coronavirus tests on May 7, 2020, in Washington DC.

Republicans are trying to turn this against Jones, painting him as anti-Trump in a state where the president remains politically popular. Some Republicans in the state rejected the idea that Trump’s support among voters there has softened, saying the president remains as popular as ever.

“I think they’re all coming home to Trump,” said Brown, the Alabama Republican strategist. The president’s message around law and order amid protests and uprisings this summer is “solidifying stuff behind Trump.”

As this summer has seen waves of protests against police brutality and the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Jones cut his first campaign ad saying, “Black lives matter.”

Jones had built a strong base of support among Black voters in 2017, in part because he has a strong record on racial justice. He is a longtime civil rights attorney who in 2001 and 2002 prosecuted two members of the Ku Klux Klan for the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four Black girls. And in 2018, a bill he co-sponsored with Sen. Ted Cruz aimed at forcing more records to be released in civil rights cold cases.

“Doug will always be a hero of mine for finishing what I couldn’t finish,” said former Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley, who prosecuted Klansman and 1963 church bomber Robert Chambliss in 1977, but wasn’t able to convict the other men involved in the plot. “The biggest regret about my time in office — even though we convicted Chambliss — there were the other killers of those little girls out there free, and there wasn’t anything we could do about it.”

Jones’s history on the case helped energize turnout among Black voters in 2017. He has made an emphasis on racial justice a centerpiece of his reelection campaign and co-sponsored the Justice In Policing Act, though there’s a push for him — and Democratic lawmakers writ large — to do more.

“Black women are realists. We’re practical. In Alabama, to have a Democrat in the Senate is important. We are far more likely to have a candidate to listen to those issues, so he gets the support based on that,” said Lecia Brooks, of the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund. She notes, however, that Jones hasn’t offered the kind of transformative leadership she was looking for. ”There were great hopes that he would use that time wisely, rather than convince Republicans he was a safe Democrat,” she said.

 AP Photo/John Bazemore
Supporters of Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Doug Jones wait for results of election night during a watch party on December 12, 2017, in Birmingham, Alabama.

Jones sees the South as a changed place since the segregated 1950s and ’60s he saw as a kid. But he also thinks progress on racial justice has slid back in recent years, with violent clashes between white supremacists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia; police killings of unarmed Black men; and a sitting president who has repeatedly used racist language.

“I grew up in a segregated South, and we are so far removed from the South of the 1950s and early ’60s. But clearly, we have a long way to go,” Jones said. “We assumed — especially with the election of Barack Obama — that things were just better and things would continue to get better. And actually, things started getting worse. It’s hard to measure how far we’ve come, especially since we’ve slid back a good bit, but we clearly have a long ways to go.”

Jones also sees himself as a new kind of Democrat from the Deep South.

“I quite frankly reject the term ‘Southern Democrats’ to some extent because of the connotation” with segregationist Democrats of the past, Jones said. “We’re Democrats in the South, and the connotation earlier I think has gone away.”

There’s a new kind of Democratic wave in the South

Jones’s 2017 special election win was one of the first glimmers of hope for Democrats after a Republican sweep in the 2016 presidential election. But it also has ushered in a new generation of Democratic candidates in the South.

Southern states that used to be reliably Republican are starting to change. Swift demographic change and suburban voters who used to vote Republican but have been turned off by Trump are turning the South into a real battleground.

This year alone, there are four Senate races that the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates either toss-up or Lean Republican: North Carolina, South Carolina, and the two Georgia races. Democrats are also contesting Texas and Kentucky, and two Black candidates in Mississippi and Louisiana could narrow the race in states that are currently rated Solid Republican.

Republicans are watching the changing map with trepidation.

“The fact we’re even talking about a competitive race in Georgia tells you the impact of demographic change on American politics,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres told Vox. “Normally, a few years ago we would never even be talking about Senate races in Texas or Georgia or North Carolina even being competitive. And now they’re certainly on the list of states to watch, which shows you the kind of change that’s occurred in the voting electorate in those states.”

Jones also sees these demographics, but he also thinks it’s the result of Democratic candidates like him not trying to fit themselves into a conservative box.

“We need to be the party that looks out for the little guy, the party that is not anti-business by any stretch. ... But we need to make sure that everybody has access to good health care,” Jones said.

Whether these changes are enough to save Jones in 2020 is yet to be seen. But even if Democrats lose his seat in Alabama, they’re gaining ground in the South that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

“Alabama is Republican today, but so was Georgia 10 years ago,” the Republican consultant in Alabama said.


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