Doug Jones Now Faces the Red-State Democrat’s Dilemma

He joins a small cadre of Senate Democrats representing GOP states

Sen.-elect Doug Jones of Alabama, center, is set be sworn in Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Doug Jones will enter the Senate on Wednesday as the Democrat who did the impossible — he won his seat in Republican-dominated Alabama. He will now join a small cadre of red-state Democrats who have to navigate an increasingly divisive political environment.

Jones said he was elected because he emphasized finding common ground and working across the aisle. He will now have to prove it — especially if he has any hope of keeping his seat in 2020.

Time will tell exactly how Jones will balance representing a ruby-red state while maintaining Democratic values, including his pro-abortion rights stance. Jones has indicated he intends to be an accessible representative and forge bipartisan compromises when possible.

That’s why he was able to beat the controversial Republican nominee, Roy Moore, he said. Moore was disliked by a swath of GOP voters that only grew after he faced sexual misconduct allegations involving teenage girls.

In drawing a contrast with Moore, Jones was able to successfully forge a brand as the fair-minded former prosecutor who would represent all Alabamians.

“It’s one thing to have a brand as a candidate. It’s another to have it as an elected official” Alabama-based Democratic pollster Zac McCrary said. “But I think [Jones has] the ability to solidify that.”

Alabama focus

Like he did during his campaign, Jones is expected to keep his focus on issues affecting his state rather than becoming mired in national political debates.

In one of his first official statements since winning the election, he called for Congress to act and fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program, amid news that Alabama would freeze enrollment. He talked about CHIP often during the campaign and mentioned it in his victory speech on election night.

Staying focused on his home state was the advice Jones received from Sen. Joe Manchin III, a West Virginia Democrat. Manchin is up for re-election in a state President Donald Trump won by more than 40 points in 2016, but Democrats believe the former governor’s personal brand in the Mountain State will make him hard to beat.

“I just told Doug, ‘Be an Alabama Democrat. You don’t have to be a Washington Democrat,’” Manchin told CNN the day after the Alabama election. “Whatever you do, make sure Alabama’s first and foremost on your mind.”

Jones campaign chairman Giles Perkins said he expects that’s what Jones will do — focusing on health care, especially protecting rural hospitals, and economic issues.

“I expect him to be the fair and open-minded guy he is,” Perkins said Tuesday. “He’s going to hear everybody out and make his decisions based on what’s best for Alabama.”

Perkins expected Jones to be in the state as often as possible, and have effective constituent services, which could help him win re-election in the future.

“I think that navigating Alabama for Doug is going to be bringing good services and constituent relations. And if so, the voters will be receptive to him just as they were Dec. 12th,” Perkins said. 

Jones kept that Alabama focus when hiring his senior staff. The four senior staffers announced Tuesday are all Yellowhammer State natives. Three of them also have experience working for Senate Democrats in Republican states who have walked similar political tightropes as the one facing Jones. 

A balancing act 

Although Jones will likely stay focused on Alabama, the political issues that come before the Senate will also inevitably draw him into national debates.

And he’ll face a challenge confronting other red-state Democrats: When do you stick with your party? And when do you break to prove your independence and represent your state’s interests? 

Ten other Democrats representing states that Trump won have been swing votes on some GOP priorities. Five of them are from states the president carried by at least 20 points. Jones will make six, since Trump won Alabama by 28 points. 

Three of those five Democrats — Manchin, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana — broke ranks to support Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch. Jones declined during the campaign to say whether or not he would have supported Gorsuch.

But none of them supported the GOP plans to undo the 2010 health care law or rewrite the tax code. 

Jones has acknowledged his precarious political position in representing a Republican state, but was optimistic about his chances when running for a full Senate term in 2020.

“If we approach 2020 like we approached 2017, I’ll be fine,” Jones said in a postelection press conference. “Because I’m not going to change. It’s not a question of adjusting what you believe to your campaign. It’s making sure you listen and get educated by constituents.”

Jones has only a few years to prove his bipartisanship to voters. McCrary noted that he is already starting out with high name identification in the state thanks to the high-profile Senate race.

“I think he has a real platform to connect with voters and start to form the type of brand that has allowed the Joe Manchins, the Heidi Heitkamps, the Claire McCaskills to connect and survive in difficult states and difficult political climates,” McCrary said.

However, looking ahead to 2020, the numbers and political trends in Alabama are not on Jones’ side.

Before Jones’ victory, the state had not elected a Democrat to the Senate in 25 years. And that Democrat, Richard C. Shelby, is now a Republican. Even with the scandals surrounding Moore, Jones won by a narrow margin of less than 2 points. The number of write-in votes, which could have gone to Moore, exceeded Jones’ margin of victory.

But McCrary said Jones could still craft a brand similar to that of other red-state Democrats, proving to voters he is an independent senator who is laser-focused on issues affecting his state. That could help him in 2020, especially if there is another divisive GOP primary.

In today’s political environment, anything is possible.

“The idea that ‘something just can’t happen,’ I think, should be out of all of our vocabularies at this point,” McCrary said.

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