Doug Jones stresses unity at Democratic convention, with tough campaign ahead

Alabama Democrat is the most vulnerable senator in 2020

In this screenshot from the 2020 Democratic National Convention’s livestream on Monday, Alabama Sen. Doug Jones stands in front of an exhibit commemorating the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. (Handout/DNC via Getty Images)
In this screenshot from the 2020 Democratic National Convention’s livestream on Monday, Alabama Sen. Doug Jones stands in front of an exhibit commemorating the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. (Handout/DNC via Getty Images)
Posted August 18, 2020 at 6:00am

For two minutes and fifteen seconds Monday night, Sen. Doug Jones addressed Democrats gathered virtually for their party’s convention. He chose to focus on unity, a message reminiscent of his Senate campaign slogan, “One Alabama.”

“I believe that Americans have more in common than what divides us,” the Alabama Democrat said. 

Jones isn’t just any rank-and-file senator. He’s a longtime friend of former Vice President Joe Biden, whom Democrats will nominate for president later this week. He’s also the most vulnerable senator running for reelection, seeking a full term in a state President Donald Trump carried by 28 points in 2016.

To win in Alabama, Jones needs Republicans — including Trump supporters — to vote for him over the GOP nominee, former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville. So what was Jones doing on Monday night, so openly tying himself to the national party?

Republicans said Jones’ appearance was an “audition” for a role in a Biden administration, and a sign the senator recognizes he can’t win.

“Anti-Trump Democrat Doug Jones has turned his attention from representing the values of Alabama to a potential Cabinet spot in a Biden-Harris administration,” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesperson Paige Lindgren said in a statement.

One Democratic strategist with knowledge of the race said that while Jones was running a vigorous campaign, his appearance Monday night seemed to show he was playing a long game.

“You could make a case that voting across party lines, steering clear of the convention, would be a better way to present yourself in a very conservative state,” the strategist said. “It does feel to me like he’s as much focused on the next couple of decades of his political career as he is the next couple months.” 

Joe Trippi, a senior adviser to Jones’ campaign, called such talk “ridiculous.”

“I know Doug Jones really well. He loves being the senator and working for folks in Alabama,” said Trippi, who also worked on Jones’ winning special election campaign in 2017. “That’s all he wants to do. That’s what he’s been doing.”

“We intend to win,” Trippi said.

In the spotlight 

Some Alabama campaign strategists were skeptical that Jones’ convention speech would have any impact on his campaign. His turn in the national spotlight Monday came during the second hour of the convention that was broadcast on network news outlets.

“I don’t think speaking at the Democratic convention hurts Doug Jones,” Alabama GOP strategist Robert Kish said. “I think everybody knows Doug Jones is a Democrat.”

Trippi noted it will be difficult to gauge any response to Jones’ speech in such an unusual virtual gathering.

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“I don’t think any of us know [the impact] given there aren’t thousands of people that will be cheering from the floor,” Trippi said. “The number of people who may hear his message, again, about finding common ground, bringing people together, making progress, particularly in the racial divide. I think that that will help him.”

The national attention and prime-time speaking slot could boost Jones’ fundraising. But he already has a sizable financial advantage in the race, which Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates Lean Republican.

As of June 30, Jones’ campaign war chest was more than 15 times the size of Tuberville’s, $8.8 million to $562,000.

Tuberville blasted Jones’ speech in a video posted on Twitter.

“Because he’s one of them, didn’t Doug Jones look comfortable sharing the convention spotlight with liberals like Bernie Sanders and Michelle Obama and other out-of-touch socialists?” he said.

“His convention remarks left no doubt that Doug Jones will not stand for the people of Alabama,” Tuberville said.

An uphill battle 

Trippi acknowledged that Jones’ race is going to be a “dogfight.” His bid for a full term comes after winning a low-turnout special election in 2017 to replace former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Jones defeated former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who faced allegations of sexual misconduct.

“Roy Moore was the only person who could lose that seat,” Kish said.

Moore lost a bid for a rematch this year, with Tuberville, a political newcomer, winning the GOP primary in a runoff over Sessions, with help from Trump

For Jones to win, he needs high Democratic turnout, particularly among Black voters, who fueled his surprise 2017 win. Jones noted Alabama’s civil rights history in his convention speech, speaking at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in front of an exhibit commemorating the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which killed four Black girls. As a federal prosecutor, Jones convicted members of the Ku Klux Klan responsible for the bombing.

But it’s not enough for Jones to turn out Democrats. He also needs Trump-voting Republicans to split their tickets and vote for a Democratic senator.

Zac McCrary, an Democratic pollster based in Alabama, said some Republicans might consider backing Jones amid the ongoing pandemic and economic crisis, given his reputation as “sober-minded” and his experience in government and as a prosecutor.

“In a moment where schools and heath care and the economy and the football season are all crumbling around us, I do think that Tuberville is a risk for Republicans versus somebody who has more stature,” McCrary said.

Republicans think that’s unlikely, especially since Jones has not broken with his party on high-profile votes, including Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation and Trump’s impeachment.

“That’s plenty to send Doug Jones packing. Period,” said Perry Hooper, a former Alabama GOP state lawmaker and member of the Trump campaign’s finance committee.

Trippi acknowledged those high-profile votes may cause some Republicans to write off voting for Jones. But he said Jones can make inroads among college-educated voters in the suburbs, particularly with women who have soured on Trump, by emphasizing his bipartisan work in Congress.

Jones has broken with his party, backing Democratic leaders’ priorities 61 percent of the time, according to CQ Vote Watch. The average Senate Democrat supports his or her party 91 percent of the time.

Jones stressed in his brief remarks Monday night that it’s important to set partisanship aside.

“It’s not about what side of the aisle we’re on,” he said. “It’s about whether or not we’re on the side of the people.”