Imperiled Doug Jones to Back Dems' Presidential Nominee
For any other Democrat, the move would not be remarkable. For Sen. Doug Jones, the Democrat from Alabama, it could complicate his already precarious bid for re-election. He just pledged to support whomever Democrats nominate for president.
“Whatever we’re going to do, we will end up supporting the nominee,” Jones told Alabama voters on Friday. “I’m not going to run away from that. And I’m going to hope to have some of my colleagues come down here.”
That 2020 nominee remains unknown, of course, with the primary season still nearly a year away. Like the rest of the electorate, voters in Alabama are still getting to know the dozen-plus presidential aspirants. History indicates they might not like what they find.
The state known as the Heart of Dixie soured early on the last candidate Democrats nominated. Hillary Clinton would lose there to Donald Trump by more than half a million votes, a nearly 30 percentage-point margin. The state was so bright red in 2016 that Clinton never even visited.
Democrats will likely have a hard time improving on that record next year. Some of the candidates lining up to challenge Trump are much farther to the left ideologically than Clinton.
Whoever gets the nod will share a ticket with the Southern moderate Jones. He is just one of two Senate Democrats running for re-election in states that Trump carried, and his second race is expected to be substantially more difficult than his first.
Jones, who became the first Senate Democrat to win in the state in a quarter-century, was considered something of a “fluke” among the Alabama political class. He owes his seat less to any genius strategy than to a disgraced Republican opponent. He had the good fortune to run against Roy Moore, the former state Supreme Court judge who appeared to be a shoo-in until allegations of sexual dalliances with underage girls surfaced.
Moore drew national condemnation, and Jones went on to win the special election for the seat vacated by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. But just barely: He prevailed by less than two percentage points (just 22,000 votes).
Those political circumstances make Jones a marked man as he seeks a full six-year term. The National Republican Senate Committee sees Alabama as a prime pickup opportunity, and survival in the Deep South hinges on striking a moderate tone. Jones has delivered so far by bucking party brass, siding more than once with Republicans and shying away from criticism of Trump. During his first year in the Senate, he voted with the president more than 50 percent of the time, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight.
Pointing to that record, Jones told Stephen Colbert on “The Late Show” that he is “as close to the middle as you can possibly get.” Summing up the Southern political climate, the senator told the talk show host, “That is just where we are as a party in the South. … I call it the radical middle.”
Republicans see it differently. Rep. Bradley Byrne, who plans to run for the seat, told RealClearPolitics that the early 2020 endorsement is more evidence that Jones “is a die-hard liberal.”
“It is no surprise to hear he will support the Democrat nominee for President in 2020 — whoever it is,” Byrne said in a statement. “This Democrat Presidential primary is a race to see how far to the left they can go, and I look forward to Doug Jones defending radical ideas like the Green New Deal and infanticide to Alabama voters.”
The early endorsement may be evidence of another harsh political reality. While the presidential nomination is anyone’s guess at this point, the odds seem to favor Democrats picking a senator to challenge Trump. Six of Jones’ colleagues are already in the race.
One longtime Alabama strategist told RCP that Jones would be seen as unserious if he were to remain coy and withhold his support.
“I think it is one of those things where he doesn’t want to be too cute by half,” said David Mowery, who has worked for both Democrats and Republicans. "If it is a fellow senator, it will be hard not to endorse. I just don’t think anyone would believe it.”
The strategist agreed with the conventional wisdom that Jones is essentially a dead man walking. Endorsing early appears to be part of an effort to counter a political deck that’s stacked against him. “The hope,” Mowery concluded, “is that voters say, ‘We knew that, but we like Doug.’”