Alabama’s extraordinary election of Doug Jones to the Senate will test how well a Democrat can represent the Heart of Dixie.
In a state that hadn’t elected a Democratic senator in 25 years, Jones will have to connect with Alabamians who elected him in part because they couldn’t stand his Republican opponent Roy Moore, a twice-removed former judge tarnished by a string of controversial comments and multiple sexual-misconduct allegations, including assault and preying on teenagers half his age.
There are already hints of how Jones, 63, will serve in office for the next three years. On the campaign trail, Jones portrayed himself as a uniting figure, willing to work with anyone on “kitchen-table” issues—health care, the economy, and education—to advance the deeply conservative state where he was born, raised, and has lived for most of his life. Throughout the race, Jones refrained from emphasizing positions that put him at odds with Alabama, from his stance in favor of abortion rights to his opposition to President Trump, who is still popular in much of the state.
"The best thing for Alabama is someone who can work across the aisle, that can work with Richard Shelby," Giles Perkins, a Jones campaign adviser, told National Journal. "Doug Jones is going to be able to work with Republicans and independents and everybody else better than Roy Moore could work with anybody."
Following the allegations against Moore and the resignation of Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, who left amid a sex scandal this year, Jones saw his candidacy as something deeper—a symbolic return to decency over politics, a turning of the page on an embarrassing chapter in Alabama’s history.
He also wished to write a new one, acknowledging the deep racial divides of the state, calling out those in the past who attempted to deepen them, like the late Gov. George Wallace. Jones is best known as the former U.S. attorney who prosecuted Ku Klux Klan members responsible for killing four young black girls in the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963. Discussing his background helped boost his support among African-American voters, 96 percent of whom supported him.
In one of his last campaign speeches, Jones said that the civil-rights movement that swept through his homeland when he was a child “fueled” his desire to study law. He owns a guitar signed by Joan Baez, the civil-rights activist who sang at the 1963 March on Washington, according to Gregory Vega, a close friend and former U.S. attorney in Southern California. In the Senate, Jones could continue to focus on judiciary matters.
"I think he will champion, because of the state that he's coming from, economic development, social justice,” said Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, the civil-rights hero, who campaigned for Jones. “He was the one that didn't give up and kept the faith in investigating the bombing of the church in Birmingham.”
Still, Jones will face a great challenge in overcoming his state’s political past. The last Democrat elected senator in Alabama flipped to become a Republican in 1994, when a red wave convinced a Southern conservative that he couldn’t survive in Washington for another day in the party he had served for decades.
That man, Richard Shelby, 83, still works in the Senate today, a lingering testament to the shattering of the Democratic Party in the Deep South—a stretch of five states, from Louisiana to South Carolina, represented by 10 Republican senators. But even Shelby, who has remained a staunch party man over the years, couldn’t stomach voting for the “radioactive” Moore.
"I was conflicted because we'd lose a seat, but proud of the people of Alabama,” Shelby told reporters. “I believe they chose principle over politics.”
Republicans hope they don’t have to make a similar choice in 2020. Moore, a former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, was probably the easiest Republican to beat in the state. He was once removed from the bench for refusing to remove his two-ton monument of the Ten Commandments and, after he was later reelected, suspended for ordering state judges to defy the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2015 legalizing same-sex marriage. He has made a number of controversial statements over the years, saying “homosexual conduct should be illegal” and suggesting that Muslims shouldn’t be allowed to serve in Congress.
Republicans in the state expect Jones will face a much tougher opponent in the next election, someone more in tune with the conservative state but without the ethical baggage of Moore. This year, state legislators approved a measure to put an amendment on the 2018 ballot that would say the Alabama constitution doesn’t include the right for a woman to have an abortion.
“Trying to thread that needle between what Alabamians want and what the national Democrat Party is expecting through the leadership of Senator Schumer—I think he's going to have a very, very difficult time,” said GOP Rep. Robert Aderholt of Alabama.
While in office, Jones will continue to emphasize his deep roots in the state, and find other ways to connect with conservatives. On the stump, Jones said he’s a supporter of the Second Amendment, and a deer and turkey hunter—unlike Moore, whom he ridiculed for “prancing” around in a cowboy get-up.
Vega says Jones, a University of Alabama alumnus, is a proud lifelong resident of the state who invites friends to college football games and often signs his emails “Roll Tide.”
“I think he will focus on the issues most important to Alabamians—health care for seniors and children, education, military, and bringing good jobs to Alabama,” Vega said.