Alabama Sen. Doug Jones does not act like a man who is worried about his future employment. Vulnerable senators ― and everybody involved in American politics says Jones is indisputably the most vulnerable senator in the country ― are supposed to run away from their party’s presidential candidates, vote against their ideological allies and pretend their longtime opponents are actually their best friends.
Jones voted to impeach President Donald Trump. He voted against Brett Kavanaugh. He gladly talks about his long friendship with Vice President Joe Biden, which dates back to 1988, when Jones worked for the Delawarean’s first presidential run and continued in 2017, when Biden was one of the few national Democrats who was welcome to campaign in Alabama. He’ll gladly tell you the two men still talk regularly ― Biden called Jones the night of Alabama’s GOP primary last month.
And while vulnerable senators are supposed to avoid the party’s national conventions at all cost, Jones is set to speak at the Democratic National Convention on Monday night, delivering a short speech about his friend Biden.
All of this has resulted in one of those unspoken pieces of conventional wisdom that exist in Washington, the kind of thing everybody “knows” even if nobody has actually reported it out: that Jones is auditioning for a job in the Biden administration. Maybe attorney general. Maybe somewhere else in the Justice Department, or an ambassadorship.
Jones is having none of it, and blames Republicans for spreading the rumor and trying to undermine him. “It’s something that people should not even think about and talk about,” Jones told HuffPost in an interview. “I am going to win this reelection. I’m going to win six more years in the United States Senate, and maybe six more years after that.”
Jones’ confidence that he won’t need a new job come January is striking, and perhaps foolish. Trump won Alabama by nearly 30 percentage points in 2016, and is likely to defeat Biden by double digits this fall. Before Jones won his special election in 2017, Republicans had held every statewide office for more than a decade. Democrats, in calculating how many seats they need to win to pick up the Senate, often simply assume a Jones loss is baked in.
Jones sees things differently: He is facing an inexperienced opponent, former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville, at a time when the coronavirus pandemic is reminding voters of the need for steady leadership. He believes this summer’s revitalization of the Black Lives Matter movement has sent the old political math of the South ― that wooing white voters invariably requires moves that will alienate Black ones ― to the dustbin. In 2017, it took perfect political positioning, a series of GOP missteps, and well-timed revelations to accomplish the impossible and send Jones to the Senate.
Jones thinks he can pull off the impossible again.
Republicans find all of this laughable. “Doug Jones is a hardcore liberal who sided with his party to impeach President Trump, obstruct funding for the wall, and promote abortion on demand,” said Jack Pandol, a spokesman for the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC controlled by allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “He has never even attempted to pretend he cares more about representing Alabama than auditioning for a future job in a Democratic Administration, so in November we’re going to grant his wish and send him into retirement.”
The GOP is counting on a victory over Jones. Republicans have a 53-47 advantage over Democrats in the Senate, and Jones is essentially the party’s only chance to pick up a seat. If Jones somehow survives, Democrats only need to win three of the seven Republican-held seats both parties are actively contesting in order to pick up the majority.
At the same time, they’re also taking a win for granted. In his brief time as a political figure, Tuberville has become famous mostly for not campaigning or talking to the media, and largely won his primary over former Attorney General Jeff Sessions by virtue of not being the candidate despised by Trump. And even as the Senate Leadership Fund and the National Republican Senatorial Committee both spend millions of dollars on ads attacking Jones, a jokey web video the NRSC released last month seemingly sums up their view of the race.
“Doug Jones has something he doesn’t want you to know, something that will bring him down,” a gravelly narrator declares. “He’s a Democrat.”
Jones’ path to victory undoubtedly starts with Black voters. Southern politics, especially along the Gulf Coast, has long been intensely polarized along racial lines. Sizable populations of Black voters have historically backed Democrats, but conservative white majorities have backed Republicans, in no small part because Black voters were voting the other way.
Rep. Terri Sewell, Alabama’s only other Democrat in Congress, said that meant Black voters in Alabama were often left simply hoping to avoid the worst. “You’re always praying that the blackface photo doesn’t come out or whatever,” she said. “We are always one bad incident, one bad picture of a white politician away from the World Cup not coming to Alabama, or the NCAA not coming to Alabama.”
Now, Sewell said, they can be proud of Jones, the man who prosecuted members of Ku Klux Klan 30 years after they set off a bomb and killed four young girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Jones won his seat in 2017 thanks to high Black turnout, and has spent his Senate career focused on protecting his most loyal voters. Sewell ticked off his achievements: He secured permanent funding for the state’s historically Black colleges and universities. He’s worked to cut the shockingly high maternal mortality rates for Black women, and has been the state’s most prominent voice in favor of expanding Medicaid, which would cover 360,000 more people in the state. And, she noted, he was the only senator from the Deep South who has said the political phrase of the moment, “Black Lives Matter.”
Under the old rules of Southern politics, simply uttering those words would end Jones’ campaign. Any outreach to Black voters would be met by white backlash, dooming his already slim reelection chances. Appearing at a Black Lives Matter rally, like Jones did after the death of George Floyd, would be the equivalent of political suicide.
“As new generations have grown up and taken over, the same businesses that fought civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s are now the companies leading the way in racial reconciliation, and trying to do things to build an inclusive society,” he said. “I think there will be a bigger backlash, on a statewide basis, for a candidate who does not embrace the change that is needed in this country. People are tired of the racial animus. People are tired of the dog whistle politics that we’ve seen in Alabama and around the country for so many years, that we’re seeing, to some extent, from the president.”
Jones’ assertions are backed up by public polling: White voters, in the weeks after Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, were far more willing to express support for racial justice than they had been in the past. Those shifts could help him in Alabama’s metro regions, around Birmingham, Huntsville and Montgomery. The question is whether they’ll last until Election Day, and whether they’ll stretch into parts of rural Alabama where Jones needs to limit Republican advantages.
Still, Jones has his limits. A former prosecutor, he’ll eagerly talk about his work on civil rights issues, including his prosecution of police officers who were harassing Latino residents in north Alabama. But when asked if the criminal justice system is racist ― a core belief of the Black Lives Matter movement ― Jones is hesitant.
“I think there is racism within the system, for sure. But I’m reluctant to say the system is racist,” Jones said. “I think trying to put a label on it and getting into a debate about whether it is racist, or whether it’s a systemic racism problem, takes away from the fact that we all agree we’ve got to do better.”
Unique Dunston is a 23-year-old Black woman who organized Black Lives Matter protests in Marshall County, where she lives. She loves Jones, and has canvassed for him in the past.
“That would never happen with a Republican,” she said of Jones’ willingness to say “Black Lives Matter.” “I love that he’s not afraid to take a stance and that he actually cares.”
But when told about Jones’ answer on whether the justice system is racist, she sighed.
“That’s difficult,” she said. But she bowed to the political reality: “I feel like if he’s going further, it could be a detriment for him. He’s got to get a lot of Republican votes to win this.”
Which brings us to the second, more elusive part of Jones’ path to victory: convincing enough Republicans to vote for him and Trump on the same ballot.
“Doug Jones picked the lock on the electorate in 2017, and that gives us a prototype,” said Zac McCrary, a Democratic pollster based in Montgomery who is working on the race for an outside group. “He does need to find a higher floor among rural, small-town white voters than other Democrats. He’s got to go in there and claw and fight for voters to get into the 30s in rural Alabama, rather than in the teens and 20s.”
In 2017, Trump was not on the ballot, and Roy Moore ― a highly controversial figure in the state even before he was accused of sexually assaulting teenagers ― was his GOP opponent. That made it easy for Jones to either win over Republicans, or for Democrats to convince them to stay home entirely. With Trump on the ballot and voter interest in the election at record highs in public polling, the second option is gone.
That means Jones needs to win over a lot of Trump voters. He’s not willing to pretend to be close allies with the man he voted to impeach ― he said Trump’s approach to the coronavirus has been “more about winning reelection than it’s been about saving lives” ― and that means he’s left with convincing loyal GOP voters their own candidate is unacceptable.
On that front, Jones is ready. “Republicans have nominated what I call a hyperpartisan. The Republican primary was a divisive primary that was totally devoid of any issues that people of Alabama care about. It was totally devoid of anything about the pandemic, the economic crisis,” he said.
Jones, at least in this relatively early portion of the contest, is avoiding what would likely be the harshest hits on Tuberville ― accusations he defrauded investors while running a hedge fund, and the mere one-game suspension he handed down to an Auburn player who was charged with raping a 15-year-old girl.
Instead, Democrats and Jones are portraying Tuberville as a bored football coach who ran for Senate instead of retiring, and lacks the experience necessary to confront the pandemic and accompanying recession.
“That might’ve been a good fit for the electorate nine months ago,” McCrary said of Tuberville’s outsider status. “But when a country is facing existential, generational threats, that could be a real problem for Republicans.”
Still, even the right opponent, two unprecedented crises and the type of strong relationship with Black voters that eludes most white Democrats may not be enough to save Jones, or even to make the race close. National Democratic groups have yet to show much faith in Jones’ chances ― neither the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee nor the major Democratic super PACs have reserved any television airtime in the race, which is causing some grumbling among Jones’ fellow senators.
“I think it would be a mistake for them not to make an effort there,” said Montana Sen. Jon Tester, a former DSCC chair. “Their primary responsibility is to protect incumbents. Alabama’s a tough state, and you don’t want to throw money away. But Doug deserves it, he’s earned it.”
And plenty of people remain willing to write Jones off. A Morning Consult poll released earlier this month showed Tuberville with massive 52% to 37% lead over Jones, prompting another round of speculation about Jones’ future employment status. Both Democrats and Republicans agree the race is closer ― the GOP believes Tuberville’s lead is in the high single digits, while Democrats insist the margin is in the low single digits.
“There is no way in hell Doug Jones is down by even double digits, much less 17 points. No way ― period,” Joe Trippi, a senior adviser to the campaign, wrote in an email to supporters.
It’s the kind of plea the Jones team will have to make a lot between now and November.