MOBILE, Ala. — Jim Walker drew two armed threats in 2017 when the well-known liberal bar owner drove around with a big sign on the back of his truck endorsing Democratic senatorial candidate Doug Jones. He expects the same next year.
“Are you kidding me?” he said. “This is Alabama.”
The political stars aligned in Mr. Jones’ favor last time when he eked out a win over flawed Republican candidate Roy Moore, earning the right to fill out the term of Jeff Sessions, who left the Senate to become President Trump’s first attorney general.
Mr. Jones is now the most vulnerable senator in the country.
“I’m already calling him, ‘One and Done Doug,’” said state Republican Party Chairwoman Terry Lathan. “Our people are champing at the bit, and I’m telling you it is on fire right now in my state.”
The list of headwinds that Mr. Jones faces is long.
Alabama is one of the reddest states in federal elections, and in 2020 will likely have Mr. Trump at the top of the Republican ticket to draw voters to the polls. Republicans also will have a chance to avoid selecting an embarrassing candidate.
Although Mr. Jones is on the more moderate side of the Democratic Party in Washington, he has been a roadblock to Mr. Trump and an occasional ally of liberal senators who have blocked presidential appointments and opposed a pro-life bill.
A towering example was his October vote against the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.
“He’s writing our TV scripts for us,” Ms. Lathan said.
Not all of this is mere partisan bravado. Last week, Alabama media reported on polling that showed Mr. Jones’ net approval had plummeted by 17 percentage points since he was elected. Slightly more respondents said they approve than disapprove of Mr. Jones’ performance, but those numbers have shifted considerably, and his approval rating has fallen to less than 50 percent.
Mr. Jones and his staff did not respond to questions about the poll numbers and the 2020 race.
Well aware of how steep the hill Democrats face in his state, Mr. Walker, 53, recalled the optimism surrounding the Jones campaign’s homestretch in the 2017 race.
“I had people with Vice television following me around, and there were Democratic National Committee people down here, and all of them thought it was over, that it was easy, a sure thing,” he said. “And I tried to tell them, ‘No, this isn’t over at all. This thing is going down to the wire.’”
In fact, Mr. Jones won by fewer than 22,000 votes over Mr. Moore, a former state Supreme Court chief justice who was accused of serial dating teenage girls while he was a lawyer nearly twice their age.
Roll Call’s first set of 2020 Senate rankings lists Mr. Jones as “the most vulnerable senator in the country” and rates his race as “leans Republican” without any official Republican candidates yet.
The Cook Political Report surprisingly slotted the Alabama race as “lean D,” but Charlie Cook said that is a reflection of his long-standing practice rather than any intelligence about the race.
“As a matter of long-standing policy, we do not put Senate incumbents who are thus far unopposed worse than ‘Lean,’ ” he said. “There is no question that Doug Jones is the most vulnerable Senate incumbent; he is likely to have an extremely difficult race. My guess is that as soon as there is a real opponent in the race, it will likely move to toss-up.”
Although Mr. Jones has no formal opposition, few across Alabama’s political spectrum expect that to last much longer.
Perhaps the most prominent likely candidate is U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, 63.
The Mobile Republican has a strong base and name recognition in southern Alabama, and much of the business community would probably back him because the state Democratic Party is in disarray, said Carol Hunter, communications director for the Downtown Mobile Alliance.
Indeed, to hear most political junkies tell it, the only one who hasn’t said Mr. Byrne is running is Mr. Byrne himself.
“He’s running; count on it,” said J. Mark Bryant, a former Alabama newspaperman turned government employee.
Other possible Republican candidates include Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, who challenged Gov. Kay Ivey in the 2018 Republican gubernatorial primary. Mr. Sessions has been mentioned as another potential candidate, and even Mr. Moore, in a recent interview with AL.com, declined to rule out a political return.
Mr. Bryant, who said he voted for Mr. Jones last time, may represent the re-election campaign’s biggest nightmare — not the Republicans who stayed home in 2017, but those who felt compelled to vote against Mr. Moore and don’t see Mr. Jones as the moderate voice he promised to be.
“I don’t think I’ll vote for him again,” said Mr. Bryant, citing a number of factors including the votes Ms. Lathan mentioned.
Whatever happens, those in Mobile expect a spirited race that could produce sour faces even in Three Georges Southern Chocolates, a downtown ice cream parlor where some of the most treasured customers are dedicated Democrats, and some of the more conservative staff simply avoid political talk completely.
“I couldn’t believe it when she told me she was a liberal,” said Bobbie Ferry, 79, her hands covered with runny milk chocolate mix while she was discussing one of her longtime friends and customers. “It used to be here in ‘Bama it was a blue-dog Democrat sort of place, and you could vote for a Democrat or a Republican and there wasn’t that much difference between them.”
Those days are gone, though, and Ms. Ferry expressed astonishment at how left-wing Democrats have become.
“Jones?” she scoffed. “I’d never vote for him. He pretended to be one thing when he was running, and he’s not that. He stands for nothing.”