When Democratic Sen. Doug Jones seeks reelection in Alabama next year, he could be running against his own party as much as his GOP opponent.
As the Democratic presidential candidates vie with one another in offering ever more taxpayer financed benefits, Mr. Jones has tried to position himself as a moderate while he represents a state that President Trump won in 2016 with 62% of the vote in 2016.
Mr. Jones’ electoral chances haven’t shown signs of improvement since he took office. Since his remarkable special election win in December 2017 to finish the term of Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, Mr. Jones has seen his partisan colleagues go down to crushing defeats in races for Alabama governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.
Neither Mr. Jones’ campaign nor the Alabama Democratic Party responded to emails and phone calls seeking comment about how he will navigate this tricky path. But his opponents said they will block out any sliver of daylight Mr. Jones tries to create between himself and the sharp left turn the Democrats have taken nationally.
“The reality is that’s his team and that’s who they run with,” said Terry Lathan, chairwoman of the Alabama GOP. “He can embrace it or fight it, either way it’s trouble for him.”
Already Mr. Jones has painted himself into a corner, declaring last March he will support whoever the Democratic nominee is for president.
“I’m not going to run away from that,” he said at the time.
His Republican opponents said Mr. Jones cannot run away from what defines his party.
“As the Democrat Party continues to embrace socialism, they are growing more and more out of touch with the vast majority of people in Alabama and across the country,” Rep. Bradley Byrne, who tossed his hat into the 2020 Senate ring this year, told The Washington Times. “Every Democrat, including Doug Jones, is being forced to embrace the Green New Deal, ‘Medicare-for-All,’ and open borders. And every one of those policies are totally out of touch with what those of us in Alabama what to see accomplished.”
Of the 12 Democratic incumbents seeking reelection next year, only Alabama is rated a “toss-up” by the Cook Report.
One indication of how Mr. Jones will approach the race can be gleaned from a comparison of his websites with those of a “safe” Democrat. The sharp differences are telling, and it would seem Mr. Jones intends to avoid talking about the issues Mr. Byrne raised.
In Oregon, where Democratic incumbent Sen. Jeff Merkley is expected to cruise to reelection in 2020, his campaign website boasts of his activist left-wing credentials, such as attending the Netroots Nation conference in Philadelphia last week, and is replete with dire warnings about climate change, a call to abolish the Electoral College, and a flat declaration that, “the president is a racist.”
Mr. Jones, on the other hand, does not mention Mr. Trump on either his own website or that of his campaign. Instead, he highlights 11 issues on his Senate website, including agriculture, trade, defense and education, on which he strikes a moderate note.
When it comes to the environment, for instance, Mr. Jones offers no endorsement of a Green New Deal. Instead, he gives voters a carefully worded statement that includes, “it is important to work with other nations to promote business practices that are environmentally friendly without burdening them with unnecessary and expensive regulations.”
Similarly, on health care the words “Medicare for All” are not to be found. Rather, Mr. Jones stakes a middle-of-the-road position where he acknowledges the expense and says, “I support common-sense solutions to reduce those costs and ease those burdens.”
No specific common sense solutions are mentioned.
As for Mr. Trump, Mr. Jones says he will back him when it is good for Alabama, oppose him vociferously when it’s not. His voting record shows that he has voted in line with Mr. Trump’s position more than 50% of the time.
Even that is a strikingly high compared with most Democratic senators — presidential aspirants Sens. Cory A. Booker, Bernard Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have all voted with Mr. Trump less than 15% of the time — but not as high as conservative Alabamians would like, according to Republicans there.
“He’s talking two different languages,” Ms. Lathan said, pointing to the fact Mr. Jones does not include immigration as one of his featured issues.
“It’s huge here,” she said. “That’s not an accident, that he’s not prioritizing his stance there. He doesn’t even have it listed. The question is why isn’t he talking about it?”
Not everyone is convinced the person atop the Democratic ticket will be the most significant feature in 2020. Rather, that could be Mr. Trump and how he drives Democrats to the polls.
“The biggest factor regarding this race, I believe, is Donald Trump’s presence on the ticket,” said Richard Fording, a professor in the political science department at the University of Alabama. “With Trump actually on the ticket in 2020, I expect Democratic turnout to be high — largely due to the desire to cast a vote against Trump.”
In that sense, while most Alabama Democrats are more moderate than their coastal counterparts, a fresh face or a minority Democratic nominee could also propel a blue turnout, Mr. Fording said.
That Mr. Jones faces a difficult reelection battle is true regardless of who the Democrats nominate for president.
One factor Mr. Jones has in his favor is a fractured Republican opposition, along with the prospect that former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, who lost the 2017 special election after accusations of improper advances decades ago to young women.
Mr. Moore has thrown his hat in the ring again, despite the pleadings of Mr. Trump and others that he stay out, with the cantankerous former judge declaring, “not only can I, I will (win), and that’s why there’s such opposition.”
But Mr. Moore will have to beat back a Republican field that includes not only Mr. Byrne, who appears to be the establishment’s choice at the moment, but former Auburn head football coach Tommy Tuberville, who has tremendous name recognition state-wide, and state Rep. Arnold Mooney.
That field and the Yellowhammer State’s electoral math spell trouble for Mr. Jones, experts said.
“Party identification is a powerful force, and in that regard the GOP has a clear advantage in Alabama,” said George Hawley, a professorial colleague of Mr. Fording’s at the University of Alabama. “Jones is not in the Senate because he ran an amazing campaign. He is there because he had an exceptionally bad opponent in Roy Moore. If the Republicans nominate a competent candidate with no major scandals to run against Jones, it will be their race to lose.”