National Democrats are seriously weighing whether to go big to try to keep controversial former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore (R) out of the Senate.
Following Moore’s solid primary victory over appointed Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL), Democrats are doing the research to see if there’s a real path for former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones (D) over his divisive foe. And while they’re not ready to commit major resources to a state as crimson red as Alabama at this point, Senate Democrats are already making initial moves to support Jones with individual donations while voicing cautious optimism about having a shot at their first Senate victory in the state in nearly three decades.
“Alabama’s obviously tough territory but this is a special situation,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) told TPM on Thursday. “We believe Alabamans will want someone who they will be proud of, someone with character and integrity, and that’s Doug Jones. That is not Roy Moore.”
Democrats are clear-eyed that Moore remains the heavy favorite, and are wary about raising expectations. But they think there may be a path for Jones, who’s best known in the state for successfully prosecuting the Ku Klux Klan members who bombed a black Birmingham church in 1963 and killed four little girls, against Moore, whose decades-long religious crusade against gay rights and secularism has alienated many business-oriented Republicans in the state. While no Democrat has won a statewide race in Alabama for nearly a decade, they point out that Moore won just 51 percent of the vote in his 2012 state Supreme Court win.
There’s been almost no public polling of the race, and a smattering of public and private surveys have shown a conflicting picture of the race. Some have had Moore up big, others show a tighter contest.
“A bunch of things need to happen to get us into a place where we can be competitive — and they’re all happening,” argued Jones adviser Joe Trippi, a veteran of a number of presidential campaigns including Howard Dean’s, which emphasized winning in deep-red territory long ignored by Democrats.
Jones may need as much structural as financial support. He announced he’d surpassed $1 million total raised on Wednesday and predicted he’ll eventually out-raise Moore, and his campaign says grassroots donations have jumped in recent days, but that’s likely about a fifth as much as he’ll need for his race. He also needs well-trained staff ready to help build a field operation from scratch in a state where Democrats have almost no infrastructure, a costly and more time-consuming process that takes early investment and needs to happen now.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is already providing logistical and organizational support to Jones, and is in regular contact with his campaign. The big questions the DSCC and other national Democratic groups are looking to answer before investing significant resources are whether enough Republicans might cross over to back Jones in a state President Trump won by a 28-point margin last fall and where racially polarized voting makes it extra tough for a Democrat to get much higher than 40 percent in statewide races.
That’s a daunting task, and Democrats are wary about overselling their chances, still stinging from a special election House defeat in Georgia and worried about wasting valuable resources ahead of a year where they’re defending 10 seats in states Trump won.
That tension was displayed when former DSCC Chairman Jon Tester (D-MT), one of the senators facing a tough reelection, told TPM “you’ve got to play in the race” — but joked that it better not come at his own expense.
“If it’s going to take away from my race, absolutely not, no!” he said with a laugh.
“They’ve got to do the assessment on Alabama and if it looks like it’s possible to win, make the necessary investments to win,” he said, turning serious.
Those who know Jones best in Washington are pushing for the party to help him as much as possible.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) first met Jones back in 2002 — one of his top staffers who’d worked for Jones in Alabama introduced them early in his political career — and described him as “the greatest.” He thinks having Jones in the race — and Moore as the GOP nominee — has given the party a real chance.
“We went from probably a five percent chance of winning that race if Luther had been renominated to multiples of that. I’m not telling you it’s 50-50, it is Alabama, but Doug is very well-known and well-liked,” he told TPM. “We have a person who’s a great American hero in this race. Let’s support him.”
Kaine talked up Jones during a Democratic caucus luncheon earlier this week, and said he’s given the legal maximum donation to the candidate.
Other big-name Democrats are coming in to help as well. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who has a decades-old friendship with Jones, is headed to Alabama next Tuesday for a fundraiser and rally.
The Congressional Black Caucus is also stepping up to help an ally. The group recently hosted Jones at its annual CBC foundation luncheon, and many members are agitating the national party to step up its efforts.
Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), a civil rights legend who grew up in Alabama, endorsed Jones early on as well and plans to head back to the state to help him out between now and the December runoff.
“The party should go all-out in supporting him. He’s a good man, he’s a great candidate. I grew up in Alabama and I’ve been knowing him for a long time, since he was U.S. attorney, and all that he did to try to make things better and seek justice for the people who’ve been wronged,” Lewis told TPM. “It’s worthy of spending time, effort and money.”