Doug Jones is doing something rather surprising in his underdog Senate campaign to defeat former Judge Roy Moore (R) in Alabama: Running like an actual Democrat.
Jones’ core message and paid advertising are all about unity, working across the aisle and pocketbook issues. But he’s proclaimed liberal positions in a way that’s almost unheard of for Democrats running statewide in the Deep South, especially with the conservative Democrats who used to win in Alabama. It’s also a marked contrast to how Jon Ossoff finished his campaign in a hotly contested House race in Georgia, carefully emphasizing centrism and cutting government waste. Jones’ approach is even less cautious than that of Virginia gubernatorial nominee Ralph Northam (D), who took heat from the base for saying he’d “work with Trump” on occasion (though both Ossoff and Northam took mostly liberal positions).
A former U.S. attorney, Jones is avowedly pro-choice, even in the third trimester of pregnancy. He says climate change is real because he “believe[s] in science” and thinks President Trump shouldn’t have pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords. He wants to fix Obamacare, not dismantle it. He supports the DREAM Act, and wants undocumented immigrants brought here as children to stay in the U.S. He already campaigned with former Vice President Joe Biden, and has the endorsement of a number of national liberal groups like MoveOn.org that wouldn’t get within a mile of most southern white Democrats.
Those stances would be the kiss of death in deep-red Alabama under normal circumstances. But an off-year special election between Thanksgiving and Christmas means whoever can turn out their base best may win, and Jones badly needs the state’s African Americans and few liberals to come out in droves — without alienating the right-leaning voters he needs as part of his coalition.
National Republicans say Jones’ views already have blown his slim path to victory.
“Unless Alabama is the new California it’s going to be very difficult for him to win,” National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Cory Gardner (R-CO) told TPM.
Some local Republicans agree.
“He’s taking a seat that could be in play and putting it firmly in the Republican camp. If he’d just shut up on abortion and take some more moderate stances I think he’d be in a position to win,” said Alabama GOP strategist Chris Brown.
Other Alabama strategists on both sides of the aisle aren’t sure whether Jones’s refusal to moderate his positions, even as he emphasizes bipartisanship in his ads, will help or hurt his uphill campaign.
“If you were to make a list of litmus test issues for progressives, Doug Jones checks them all,” Richard Allen Smith, an Alabama native who’s worked on a number of Democratic races in the state, told TPM. “It’s helpful in this race because of the timing of the election and the nature of the opponent. It’s going to be entirely about turnout, whoever turns out their base in this low-turnout race is going to win.”
“You’ve got to motivate your base in a special election and that’s what he’s doing,” said one Republican strategist in Alabama.
The race to fill Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ old Senate seat is an unusual one in many ways. Moore, a hardline social conservative who has twice been thrown off the Alabama Supreme Court for violating the rule of law and refusing to enforce higher court rulings, is detested by many in the state, including a number of moderate Republicans — the only reason this is a real race in the first place. He’s fresh off a divisive primary where President Trump endorsed the man he defeated, Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL).
Jones, on the other hand, has an impressive biography. He’s best known in the state for successfully prosecuting Ku Klux Klansmen who bombed a black church in Birmingham and killed four girls, decades after other prosecutors had failed. And the Dec. 12 election means the race will almost definitely have low turnout, making exciting the base all the more important.
But it’s still Alabama, a state Trump won by almost a two-to-one margin and where he has his third-highest job approval rating of any state, comfortably above 55 percent, according to Morning Consult polls.
The few public and private polls out there largely have found Moore with a lead in the mid- to high-single digits, hovering at or right below 50 percent.
The most controversial of Jones’s stances in the state—and the one that strategists in both parties say may have been a major error—was his unabashed support of legal abortion in a place where no one could remember a single pro-choice candidate who’d ever won a statewide election.
“I am a firm believer that a woman should have the freedom to choose what happens to her own body and I’m going to stand up for that and I’m going to make sure that continues to happen,” Jones said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” the day after Moore won the Republican primary.
“Once a baby is born I’m going to be there for that child, that’s where I become a right-to-lifer,” he continued.
“I wouldn’t have done that if I were Doug,” one senior Alabama Democratic strategist told TPM. “Alabama is a very conservative state. If the focus becomes the nationalized issues that probably hurts Doug.”
“I’ve seen a lot of candidates lose because they’re labeled [pro-choice] in this state whether it’s true or not,” said former Alabama Democratic Party Executive Director Jim Spearman, who described Jones as an old friend.
Those comments have already made their way onto the airwaves. The Great America Alliance, an outside group that supports Moore and is aligned with former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, is out with TV and digital ads slamming Jones for being pro-choice “even in the most extreme circumstances, including gruesome late-term and partial-birth abortions.”
Nevertheless, many credit Jones for running an authentic, strong campaign. They say while the abortion comments will likely hurt him, it would have been worse to try to focus-group his way to a victory.
“You may run some people off, granted, who are one-issue voters. But I think it shows integrity. He’s standing there ‘saying ‘this is who I am, this is how I’ve lived my life,'” said Spearman. “Overall I think the people of Alabama want to see somebody who has that integrity and they can be proud of in Washington.”
It’s clear Jones’s campaign doesn’t want to emphasize some of his more liberal views, instead focusing on how divisive Moore is.
“He’s running on kitchen table issues. If you look at the ads we have up it’s jobs, healthcare, and education,” said Jones adviser Joe Trippi. “We view this as an election of division and controversy versus unity and working together, listening to people and knowing there are good people on both sides of the issues and it’s time someone started to actually try to work across both sides rather than send another divisive extremist to Washington. We have plenty of them.”
In Jones’ own ads, he says he’ll “work across party lines” and “can work with Republicans better than Roy Moore can work with anyone.”
And it seems Jones’ comments weren’t politically calculated — for better or worse.
“I’ve known him for a very long time, and I wouldn’t expect Doug would be trying to fuzz up his positions on any issue. That’s just not who he is, he’s going to tell you what he thinks. I don’t know if that’s a particular political calculation,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), who has known Jones for two decades, told TPM. “He’ll be more likely to win if they think ‘hey, this is an authentic guy, this is the Doug Jones we’ve always known.'”
Only time will tell whether Jones’ showing his true colors will help or hurt him in this race.
“We’ll have to see how these issues are framed as things go on. Roy Moore should win that race based on recent history — but you have to win them on the battlefield,” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) told TPM.
This story has been updated to more accurately represent Ossoff and Northam’s positions.