Doug Jones, facing ‘lose-lose’ situation, opts to convict Trump

Alabama Democrat’s impeachment vote could shore up support among his base

Vulnerable Alabama Sen. Doug Jones voted to remove President Donald Trump from office. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Vulnerable Alabama Sen. Doug Jones voted to remove President Donald Trump from office. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 5, 2020 at 4:28pm

Long before the impeachment process began, Sen. Doug Jones was considered the most vulnerable senator in 2020. The Alabama Democrat’s vote Wednesday to remove President Donald Trump doesn’t change that.

Jones, a former prosecutor, said that after “many sleepless nights,” he concluded that Trump abused his power by pressuring the Ukrainian president to investigate Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden, and that Trump obstructed Congress’ investigations of those allegations.

Operatives in both parties said Jones’ decision does not fundamentally alter the headwinds he faces in 2020 as a Democrat running for reelection in a state Trump carried by 28 points in 2016. Because Alabama is already so polarized, a high-profile vote on a polarizing issue like impeachment mainly reinforces that partisan divide.

“There are places where this could have an impact,” Alabama Republican consultant Jonathan Gray said. “Alabama’s just not one of those states.” 

‘Lose-lose’ situation?

Some campaign strategists cast Jones’ vote as picking the lesser of two evils. Whichever way he voted, he would face a backlash, from either Trump supporters or his Democratic base.

“He is in a real political vise on this,” one Democratic operative said. “This is a lose-lose situation for him.”

Jones’ potential Republican opponents were quick to cast his decision to convict Trump as proof that he aligns more with Democrats in Washington than with Alabamians.

GOP Rep. Bradley Byrne said Jones’ vote was “the final straw,” adding that he was continuing to “put his liberal D.C. buddies ahead of the people of Alabama.” And former GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions called Jones “a foot soldier for Chuck Schumer and the radical left.”

But it’s not clear whether Jones would have won over any Trump supporters had he decided to acquit the president.

“He’s not going to move any pro-Trump Republicans, regardless of how he votes,” Gray said.

If he had voted to acquit, Jones could have risked angering a Democratic base that has to turn out in high numbers for him to have any hope of winning a full term in November.

The Democratic operative said voting to convict and remove Trump “gives [Jones] the opportunity now to spend the next several months trying to woo independents and find ticket-splitters, instead of trying to spend day in and day out trying to repair damage with his political base.”

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Jones also needs Republican crossover votes to win reelection, and impeachment could dampen that effort. But Gray noted that a vote to convict Trump could appeal to so-called Never Trumpers in the GOP who would approve of the Democrat standing up to the president. The problem for Jones, though, is there aren’t many of them in Alabama.

“It makes things a little bit difficult for him but doesn’t fundamentally change the math,” the Democratic operative said. “The math was always difficult for him.”

Making his case

Jones does appear to have enough resources to make his case to Alabama voters. He began the year with $5.4 million in his campaign account, according to recent filings with the Federal Election Commission.

Jones had more than twice as much in the bank as Sessions, the former attorney general and the best-funded Republican running in the March 3 primary. Sessions’ campaign had $2.5 million at the start of the year, most of which was left from the Senate account he had built before he gave up his seat to join the Trump administration in 2017.

Byrne had $2.2 million on hand at the end of the year, while former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville had $1.5 million. 

Jones was also well-funded in the 2017 special election for the remaining three years of Sessions’ term. He went on to defeat former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who faced allegations of sexual assault and misconduct in the final weeks of the race. Republicans who opposed Moore were a critical voting bloc for Jones in that race.

Moore is running again, but campaign strategists say he is not expected to emerge from the primary. He had $44,000 in his campaign account on Dec. 31.

GOP runoff likely

Sessions, Byrne and Tuberville are considered the top candidates in the GOP primary. That contest is expected to go to a runoff, though, which would take place March 31. 

Republicans often note that Jones barely beat Moore in 2017, winning by just 2 points. Absent a deeply flawed candidate like Moore, they argue, Jones faces insurmountable partisan dynamics running for reelection in a deep-red state. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the Alabama Senate race Leans Republican.

Republicans on Wednesday speculated that Jones’ decision to remove Trump indicated he’s already planning for life after the Senate.

“It’s clear Jones has decided he’s better off auditioning for a low-level Cabinet slot in a Bernie Sanders administration than reflect the will of Alabama,” said Jack Pandol, a spokesman for the Senate Leadership Fund, a GOP super PAC.

But Jones has cast his decision as part of a transparent and deliberative process and said he kept an open mind throughout the trial. He posted daily videos on social media explaining his thoughts on the vote and did a slew of interviews prior to the trial about how he was preparing for the historic event.

Jones, a former U.S. attorney who once prosecuted Ku Klux Klan members, said his vote was ultimately one of conscience. Standing on the Senate floor Wednesday, he noted that he sits at the same desk as former President John F. Kennedy, who authored “Profiles in Courage” while serving in the Senate. 

“There are so many who will simply look at what I am doing today and say it is a profile in courage. It is not,” Jones said. “It is simply a matter of right and wrong.”