Politics

Democrats Hope for ‘Perfect Storm’ in Alabama Senate Race

Doug Jones touted as party’s strongest candidate in years

Doug Jones chats with attendees before a Democratic Senate candidate forum in Decatur, Ala., on Aug. 3. (Jeronimo Nisa/The Decatur Daily via AP, File Photo)

As Republicans gear up for a grueling primary runoff in the Alabama special election Senate race, Democratic candidate Doug Jones has the race to himself. And Democrats see Jones as their best hope for victory in a ruby-red state.

But that’s a tall order for Jones.

President Donald Trump won the state by 28 points in November. A Democrat has not won a Senate seat in Alabama since Sen. Richard C. Shelby was elected to a second term in 1992 — and he switched to the GOP two years later.

Jones has until the Dec. 12 election to make his case to Yellowhammer State voters, and Democrats know it will be tough.

“You need that perfect storm to develop,” said Zac McCrary, a Democratic pollster based in Montgomery. “You need virtually all of this to break the right way.”

McCrary and other Alabama Democrats said some of the necessary elements were falling into place, including fielding a strong nominee with a compelling background. Jones, a former U.S. attorney, secured convictions of two members of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed four girls.

But questions remain as to whether national Democrats will devote resources to the race, and whether Jones will be able to appeal to the GOP voters he needs to win.

Democrats jumping in?

National Democrats are currently monitoring the race, keeping an eye on which candidate emerges from the Sept. 26 Republican runoff.

Roy Moore, a former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, is facing off against incumbent Sen. Luther Strange in what could be a bruising battle for the nomination. (Strange was appointed to the seat in February, after Sen. Jeff Sessions resigned to become attorney general.)

As Republicans fight it out, Democrats will be in general election mode, with a focus on activating their base.

Only 5 percent of registered voters participated in the Democratic primary, compared to 13 percent who turned out on the Republican side, according to figures from the Alabama secretary of state.

While it is not clear how much national Democrats are willing to spend on the race, the national committees are looking to build up some of the campaign and state party infrastructure.

Some Democrats in Alabama said help from the national party, including the Democratic National Committee, is necessary.

“If they don’t get involved, they ought to be ashamed,” said state Rep. Craig Ford, the former minority leader in the Alabama House. “The DNC has got to get involved and quit forgetting about the deep South.”

On the night of the Aug. 15 primary, which Jones won handily, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee sent out a fundraising email, asking supporters to donate $1 to help Jones.

The email said Democrats are “going to fight even in tough territory.”

The DSCC also asked supporters to donate to an “organizing program” in Alabama. A source at the committee said the program would be focused on online and digital grass-roots organizing.

DNC involvement is centered on bolstering the state party, which has been plagued by debt and division.

“The state party seems to be fumbling right now,” said Sheila Gilbert, who chairs the Calhoun County Democratic Party. She also leads the Alabama Democratic Reform Caucus, which was established to rebuild the state party.

The state party has launched a “Summer of Revival” program, and hired four field organizers with grants from the DNC. The DNC is also planning monthly investments in the state party, though a spokesman did not respond to query about the size of the investment. Alabama data will also be added to the DNC’s website iwillvote.com, which shows voters where they can cast their ballots.

Alabama Democratic Party Chairwoman Nancy Worley acknowledged that the Senate race presented a challenge for the party.

“You’re having to keep two very delicate China plates in the air at the same time when you’re rebuilding a party structure and have a special election seat too,” she said.

But Worley, a former Alabama secretary of state, said the simultaneous tasks might help energize volunteers.

“I think it’s a really good opportunity because people don’t feel like they’re just training in a vacuum,” she said.

Gilbert, the Calhoun County Democratic chairwoman, said the recent primary helped foster relationships between county leaders, which could help in the general election. County officials have also been coordinating with grass-roots activists, and plan to do so for the Senate campaign.

Karen Barwick, a leader of the Indivisible group in Alabama’s 3rd District, which has 400 members, said her group would likely be canvassing and making phone calls for Jones’ campaign.

“We’re pretty determined,”she said. “We see this as doable.”

Jones will also be running his own campaign independent of the state and national party (though Jones is a longtime friend of DNC Chairman Tom Perez, according to a source with knowledge of their relationship).

Shortly before the primary, Bill Romjue joined the team as campaign manager. Romjue was Iowa state director for the 2008 presidential campaign of then-Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. The 47th vice president endorsed Jones in the primary. Veteran Democratic consultant Joe Trippi’s media firm is also working with the campaign.

‘Uphill climb’

Ask Democrats in the state about their chances for victory, and they’ll often say it’s an “uphill climb.”

But they are also optimistic about their chances to take back the seat previously held by the late Democratic Sen. Howell Heflin. Jones also worked for Heflin before becoming an assistant U.S. attorney in Birmingham.

Sessions won Heflin’s seat in 1996 after Heflin retired. 

“Democrats are saying, ‘That’s Howell Heflin’s seta and we want it back,’” Gilbert said.

Giles Perkins, a former executive director of the state party, said Jones is key to their optimism.

“The key for a Democrat to win in Alabama is to have a great candidate and this time we’ve got one,” he said. Perkins is supporting Jones’ campaign but does not have an official role.

Jones was not available for an interview for this story, but Democrats highlighted his status as a political outsider who focuses on economic issues as his strengths. They also touted his work as a prosecutor, particularly in convicting the Klansmen in the Birmingham church bombing case, which means he already has some name recognition in the state.

Jones’ stance on abortion could be an issue in Alabama. He told the Montgomery Adviser earlier this month that he would not vote for a nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court who would overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. He also said the “right way” to reduce abortions was “through education and access to health care and contraception rather than criminalizing women’s reproductive decisions.”

But some Democrats say frustration with national and state government could push Republicans to their side. They also speculated that a messy Republican primary could also dampen GOP turnout.

And, if Moore wins the runoff, that could help Jones.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales changed the special election race rating from Solid to Likely Republican, on account of Moore’s unpopularity among some Republicans for his tactics and positions on social issues.

Moore was removed from the Alabama Supreme Court for refusing to remove a statue of the Ten Commandments. And he was recently suspended for directing state judges to not issue same-sex marriage licenses.

Strange would also bring his own issues into the race, with questions surrounding his appointment.

Disgraced former Gov. Robert Bentley appointed Strange, then the state’s attorney general, to the Senate seat while Strange’s office may have been investigating the governor. Bentley later resigned amid charges for misusing funds to cover up an affair.

Still, Republicans are confident the seat will remain in their column.

“Of all votes cast in the Alabama U.S. Senate primary race, 72% were from Republicans,” Terry Lathan, chairwoman of the Alabama Republican Party, said in a statement. “The strength in our numbers is crushing. … The winner of our primary will be Alabama’s United States Senator.”

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.