WASHINGTON ― From the moment Doug Jones delivered his maiden speech, it was clear his time in the Senate was going to be different from that of a conventional red state Democrat.
Instead of sticking to safe topics like improving care for veterans or decrying political polarization, the Alabama Democrat opted to address an issue that is anathema to most voters in his state and others across the South: gun control.
In his March 2018 speech, Jones called for modest steps such as universal background checks for firearm purchases and raising the age for legally buying semi-automatic weapons to 21, adding that the government had a “duty” to address gun violence in the wake of the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
It was an eyebrow-raising move, one that conservatives viewed as deeply contrary to the Republican leanings of Alabama voters.
Jones has continued to chart his own path in the Senate since then. Though a moderate Democrat who sometimes votes to advance President Donald Trump’s agenda, he hasn’t been afraid to oppose Trump on issues dear to conservative voters, like funding for a border wall or the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. According to the Five Thirty-Eight website, which tracks votes in Congress, Jones has voted against Trump’s position 60% of the time ― a low figure for most Senate Democrats, but high for the only one representing a Deep South state.
A former federal prosecutor who won guilty verdicts against the Ku Klux Klan members responsible for the deadly 1963 bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama, church, Jones has also called out Trump for his divisive and what many call racist rhetoric. The president, Jones has said, ought to quit being the “offender-in-chief,” warning that Trump through his rhetoric was unintentionally giving a “green light″ to hate crimes across the country.
Jones’ tendency to speak out against Trump stands in stark contrast to the stance struck by another Democratic senator hailing from a red state ― Joe Manchin of West Virginia. But Jones is unapologetic about how he has positioned himself ahead of his 2020 re-election battle. He said he is exactly who he’d promised to be before arriving in Washington after scoring an upset win in a December 2017 special election.
“When [Trump] does things that help Alabama, I’m right there. When he does things that don’t, I’m not there and I will be critical about it, and so I feel really good about where it is and that’s what people want,” Jones told HuffPost last week. “I’m not going to have anybody lead me, whether it’s the president or someone from our own party.”
Still, his bid for a full six-year term next year is bound to be a lot tougher for Jones than his race in the special election, which he won by less than two percentage points. And the stakes are high for his party ― if he can hold onto his seat, Democratic chances of winning a Senate majority will get a major boost.
Progressive groups who helped fuel Jones’ 2017 victory credit him for standing up for progressive values as often as he does.
“On issues from choice to Trump’s racist border wall, he’s had more guts and shown a greater commitment to justice than Joe Manchin,” said Neil Sroka, a spokesman for Democracy for America.
A strong supporter of abortion rights, Jones also displayed his independence by wading into the furor over the draconian law passed by the Alabama Legislature that bans virtually all abortions in the state ― including for pregnancies caused by rape or incest ― calling it “shameful” and “callous.”
In the Senate, Jones also opposed Republican efforts to ban abortion at 20 weeks and to permanently prohibit federal funding for abortion.
These positions almost assuredly will weigh against him in a faceoff with a generic, scandal-free Republican candidate next year.
His path to becoming the first Democrat in 25 years to win a Senate election in Alabama was paved by several women who came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct and molestation against Roy Moore, his controversial GOP foe in the special election. The two squared off to fill the vacancy created when ultra-conservative Republican Jeff Sessions left the Senate to become Trump’s first attorney general.
The key to Jones’ success was support from African Americans ― especially black women ― younger white voters and moderate Republicans turned off by Moore. Replicating that success will be tougher this next time around.
One big difference is that Jones (and whoever becomes the GOP Senate nominee) will share the ballot with Trump in 2020. Turnout will be greater ― perhaps markedly so ― than it was in the special election. And the GOP candidate stands to reap a natural advantage because there are simply more voters who identify as Republican in Alabama, and many of those will simply vote a straight party-line ticket.
“Unless Jones is facing another Moore-type candidate ― and that’s not out of the realm of possibility ― he’s going to have a really hard time getting most people to vote for him again,” said David Hughes, an assistant professor of political science at Alabama’s Auburn University.
In recent weeks, Moore has teased launching another Senate run, prompting alarm from Trump himself. The president warned last month that Moore’s entry into the race would mean the “incredible gains that we have made during my Presidency may be lost,” a reference to the prospect of Democrats gaining control of the Senate and thwarting him on such matters as the confirmation of future Supreme Court nominees.
While several Republicans have declared their candidacies for Jones’ seat, the GOP establishment appears to favor three-term Rep. Bradley Byrne. The congressman has said Jones doesn’t reflect his state’s conservative values, criticizing him for opposing Trump’s wall.
Other moderate Senate Democrats who won re-election in 2018 in conservative, mostly rural states praised how Jones has positioned himself ahead of next year and cautioned against counting him out.
“It’s a tough slog when you’re from a red state,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) told HuffPost. “He’s been smart about issues. I feel good about where he’s at right now.”
Manchin, a senator who has bear-hugged Trump like no other Democrat, acknowledged that Jones faces some of the same challenges he has faced in West Virginia, a state where the president is similarly popular.
“You want to be respectful and I think he has been. When Doug feels strongly about certain things he’ll speak out about it, but I think he’s been pretty balanced,” Manchin said last week.
But Manchin, by comparison, rarely speaks out against Trump.
Alabamians have a mixed opinion of Jones, according to a Mason-Dixon poll conducted in April ― 45% approved of his performance in office, while 44% disapproved. Fifty percent of the voters indicated they would vote to replace Jones with a Republican, according to the survey.
National Republican groups have sought to tie Jones to what they call the “extremist” left. The National Republican Senatorial Committee spliced his image in a video last month that featured House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Asked about Jones’ campaign, NRSC chair Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) argued that the GOP’s record in the Senate, including its work confirming Trump’s judicial nominees, would help flip the seat.
“We’ve delivered results here in the GOP-controlled Senate working with this president and the people of Alabama will recognize that come election day,” Young said.
Jones called the Republican attacks “absurd,” criticizing many in the GOP for turning a blind eye to Trump’s tariff threats and his border emergency declaration, through which the president has sought to redirect funds from military projects, including some set for Alabama, to build the border wall.
“What they really need to be looking at is whether or not any of my opponents are going to blindly follow the president [even when] some of this stuff that hurts Alabama,” Jones told HuffPost after delivering a Senate speech decrying stalled disaster aid for states hit by extreme weather ― such as his own.
He then reiterated his campaign mantra: “I’m doing what I think is in the best interests of folks in Alabama.”