Update: Sept. 26, 2017, 9:45 p.m.
On Tuesday, September 26, Alabama Republicans bucked Trump again, handing the nomination in the run-off to Moore, who will now square off against Jones.
About a mile north and west of this hotel ballroom in Birmingham, two bombs were set off. The first was in 1963 at the 16th Street Baptist church. It was detonated by four Klansmen and killed four young black girls. The second came in 1998, at an abortion clinic on 10th Avenue South and 20th Street. It was set by a man named Eric Robert Rudolph and killed a police officer and blinded a nurse. As a U.S. attorney in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Doug Jones helped prosecute both cases.
As he took the stage Tuesday night as the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate here in Alabama, Jones seemed to keep both these events in mind as he responded to last weekend’s events in Charlottesville and President Donald Trump’s waffling response.
In the Deep South state of Alabama, Jones isn’t shrinking from a fight against white nationalism. “Fifteen years ago, I actually went up against the Klan, and we won,” Jones began his victory speech Tuesday night. “I thought we’d gotten past that, but obviously we haven’t.”
All of a sudden, it matters who Doug Jones is. On Tuesday night, Alabama Republican voters bucked the advice of President Trump and sent Judge Roy Moore, the nation’s most well-known theocrat, into a runoff for the race to replace Jeff Sessions in the U.S. Senate.
Moore, with 39 percent of the vote, will face off against incumbent Sen. Luther Strange, whose full-throated support from Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., brought him just a third of the vote. Rep. Mo Brooks trailed with less than 20 percent. “The attempt by the silk-stocking Washington elitists to control the vote of the people of Alabama has failed,” Moore boasted supporters.
Where Brooks’s voters go could determine whether Moore sneaks through the September 26 runoff. If he does, that pits one of the most radical and polarizing candidates that could possibly be conjured on the general election ballot against Doug Jones.
So who is he? Best known for his work as U.S. attorney here in Alabama, Jones, in 1998, famously re-opened his office’s investigation of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing. Before he left office in 2001, Jones brought murder charges against two of the surviving Klansmen responsible for the attack, ultimately seeing both men convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Republicans in Washington see Jones as a major threat — the perfect candidate to take down Moore. The question is whether there’s a state party behind him.
Once upon a time, Democrats controlled Alabama.
As a matter of fact, Democrats controlled state government in Alabama for over 100 years — from Reconstruction until 2010 — and near the end they seldom agreed with each other on much of anything. But that didn’t seem to matter; they were in charge.
“Alabama’s Democratic Party, it was just an umbrella,” Jones told The Intercept. “You had people standing for civil rights, and at the same time you had people standing in the schoolhouse door.”
Around the turn of the century, the main dispute was between the white, socially conservative Blue Dogs from up north and the more progressive-minded, largely black representatives from the cities. The salve that kept everyone together was patronage, the party’s deep war chests, a voter turnout machine that bussed thousands of Alabamian Democrats to the polls, and the fact that they just kept on winning.
“The party at the time was really just a confederation of factions that elected whoever they’re going to elect. And the only time it was really important was when a president was elected and there was patronage,” former Jones continued. “You know, U.S. attorneys and judgeships, that sort of thing.”
The bombing case was the only major civil rights case Jones worked on. Since leaving public service in 2001, while Jones has worked on the occasional corporate civil rights case, he’s primarily worked as a defense attorney for businesses and white collar criminals.
That included one particularly high-profile defendant: In 2004, Jones defended former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, a Democrat, in his first trial regarding bribery charges. Legendary District Court Judge U.W. Clemon dropped the case, saying the allegations against Seigelman were unfounded, but in 2006 the Bush administration’s Department of Justice again began vigorously pursuing Siegelman, claiming he had used the governor’s office to benefit campaign donors.
Siegelman has long claimed his case was the result of a political hit ordered by Karl Rove, who had previously worked as a consultant for the Alabama GOP and was pushing for his conviction in order to help Alabama Republicans. Local politicians in both parties condemned the prosecution, but he was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison.
Whatever Rove’s intention, inside Alabama, the fall of Don Siegelman was a major blow to the state’s Democrats, helping contribute to the party’s ultimate collapse in 2010. The GOP picked up eight Senate seats and 18 House seats in 2010, winning a supermajority in both chambers in the national tea party wave.
— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) August 15, 2017
Once Republicans had taken over, they began doing what they do so much better than Democrats: tilting the rules so they can stay in power. In December 2010, just a month after the Republicans had won both houses of the State Legislature, Gov. Riley called a special session. Immediately, the Republicans introduced legislation making it illegal for professional associations to take money for dues out of state employees’ paychecks. This made it impossible for the Alabama Education Association to collect membership dues from teachers’ paychecks.
The ban decimated the AEA and similar organizations that had bankrolled Democrats for decades. Suddenly, the state party was in free fall, with no money to cushion their fall.
Nancy Worley became party chair three years after the cataclysmic events of 2010. “I came into this office in 2013 and we were broke,” she said. “In fact, people were here waiting to turn off our power, that kinda thing.”
After Siegelman’s conviction, Jones continued to fight on on his client’s behalf. In 2007, Jones testified in front of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee that he believed Siegelman’s conviction was “driven by politics” and not by a pursuit of the facts.
“There is no question in my mind,” Jones told the committee, according to a contemporary report in The Nation, “that the Justice Department in Washington was behind the investigation.”
While Siegelman was finally released from prison earlier this year, and has recently begun speaking around the country in support of a documentary about his trial, he has not yet appeared on the campaign trail or publicly endorsed Jones.
After his victory Tuesday night Jones said he wants to let Siegelman take care of himself and revisit with friends and family before concerning him with the rat-race of Alabama politics again.
The last candidate to come close to winning as a statewide Democrat in Alabama was a little-known circuit court judge named Bob Vance, who ran for chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court in 2012.
The man he lost to — by a mere 2 points — was Judge Roy Moore, the current front-runner in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate.
A fiery evangelical jurist, Moore has twice been suspended from the chief justice chair, most recently for encouraging Alabamian probate judges to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples in defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court.
In an attempt to understand how Vance “narrowed the gap” among white Alabamians in his 2012 campaign against Moore, I contacted his campaign manager, David Mowrey.
An odd character and registered independent, Mowrey calls himself a “Never Moore” voter and works for both Republican and Democratic campaigns. When we met at a Birmingham-area Starbucks last May, he wore skin-tight, ocean-blue slacks, emblazoned with cartoon whales.
“He’s very difficult to message around,” Mowrey said of Moore. “He starts out at 50-50. Men love ’im, women hate ’im.”
According to Mowrey, the Vance campaign targeted white, suburban, moderately Republican women. These Alabamians tend to become much more annoyed with the uber-masculinity of Moore’s anti-gay histrionics and his blatant disregard for federal law than men.
Vance finished the race with 48.2 percent of the vote, unheard of for a Democrat in Alabama these days. But in the end, Mowrey says, the campaign couldn’t overcome the fact that many Alabamians support Moore’s bigotry, his “states rights” stance on gay marriage, and his distaste for federal interference in what he deems religious affairs.
“It’s very hard to communicate that [Moore] puts himself above the law,” he explained, “because there’s this section of the Alabama electorate who says there’s nothing wrong.”
Jones said that moderates like those Vance appealed to voters in the Birmingham suburbs of Shelby and Blount County — which in 2016 went 72 percent and 89 percent, respectively, for Trump — are the key to “narrowing the gap.” And while he admits he has no chance of winning most voters in these heavily white, Republican counties, he says he’ll consider his campaign a success if he can simply make inroads.
“I don’t have to win Shelby County or Blount County, I just have to narrow the gap and get people rethinking how they’re gonna vote,” Jones said, his Birmingham drawl getting stronger as he gets excited, “And when you start narrowing that gap in those counties you’re gonna start narrowing the gap on a statewide basis and people are gonna have to take you seriously and they’re gonna have to talk to ya.”
The reason Jones is so optimistic about getting his message out there is that the Republican Party of Alabama has given him a very good reason to be.
The two top contenders, Moore and Strange, are both damaged goods, and are widely reviled across the state. Moore, who says that trans women are just trying to get “special treatment” by identifying as female, has a strong base within the state’s massive evangelical population. But outside of those voters, even within the Republican Party he is seen as a liability. A staffer for a competing campaign compared him to Todd Akin, a former GOP candidate for the U.S. Senate in Missouri whose odd thoughts on “legitimate rape” cost him the race.
Strange, meanwhile, was appointed to hold this Senate seat in February after Jeff Sessions became Donald Trump’s attorney general until this special election could be held. At the time of his appointment by Gov. Robert Bentley, however, Strange was the attorney general and his office was investigating Bentley for alleged use of state resources to cover up an extramarital affair he’d been having with a senior staffer.
Many Alabamians thought at the time there must have been a quid pro quo between the governor and Strange, but he took the seat anyway. Subsequently, Strange has also come under investigation for alleged campaign finance violations in both his Senate campaign and his prior AG campaigns. A hearing is scheduled for Wednesday, August 16, the day after the primary.
Both of these candidates would, in an ideal world, be perfect opponents for the squeaky-clean Jones. But, despite being well-liked by every Alabamian I meet, Republican and Democrat, he has one fatal flaw.
“He’s got one big issue,” Strange’s campaign manager, Michael Joffrion, points out. “He’s got a ‘D’ after his name.”
In a state Donald Trump won with 62 percent of the vote, Jones knows victory is a long-shot. On Tuesday night, Moore alone got roughly as many votes as all of the Democrats combined. But the Jones campaign is still ebullient.
“Do not let anybody ever tell you Doug Jones cannot win this special election,” said Jones’ son-in-law, who introduced him Tuesday night. “What you will find if you look at the numbers tomorrow — this is gon’ be close — right now in Jefferson County, this county, … right now he has as many votes in this county where you worked as Luther Strange and Roy Moore combined.” (Jefferson County is an urban, solidly Democratic county.)
While Jones won comfortably, his vote total would have only been enough to finish third in the GOP primary. To win, he’ll have to bring new voters to the polls in December, and win votes from Republicans who despise Moore — which, fortunately for Jones, exist in healthy proportions.
Jones, the former U.S. attorney who prosecuted two Klansmen responsible for the 1963 Birmingham Church bombing, has begun pushing the issue of Charlottesville onto his Republican opponents. Endorsed by a plethora of national Democratic figures, including Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the Congressional Black Caucus, and former Vice President Joe Biden, Jones is attempting to appeal to the heart of a deeply conservative state with his record on civil rights.
“I wasn’t trying to jab anybody,” Jones told me later when we spoke about his victory, “but I’ve been incredibly disappointed. This guy [President Trump] can lead. He’s supposed to be a leader, and he’s not done it with regards to the Charlottesville issue. And of all the places in America, Birmingham is a place where we know that words have consequences and leaders can empower people to do bad things, and he needs to really step up.”
While Sen. Strange, the second place finisher in last night’s Republican primary, gave a brief statement regarding the events in Charlottesville last weekend, front-runner Roy Moore, who will face Strange in a runoff next month, has repeatedly refused requests for comment on the matter.
“People in the media need to keep asking him that question,” Jones told me of his potential Republican opponent. “People in the state need to know what he thinks about that. And if he’s gonna play to the same base, people need to know that and let the chips fall where they’re gonna fall.”
A further attempt by The Intercept Tuesday night to get Judge Moore’s campaign to comment went unanswered.
For Jones, though, this campaign began more as an opportunity to spread the Democratic message to the farthest reaches of Alabama than an attempt to turn Alabama blue. “We’ve got to get back into areas where we’ve been traditionally losing races and we’ve got to start narrowing the gap,” he told The Intercept. “For our campaign, our goal is to reach as many people as we can.”
But “narrowing the gap” in Alabama is a big ask.
Since 2014, Democrats have retained control in just eight of the state’s 35 Senate districts. While these districts comprise less than half the state’s population, they include a whopping 94.3 percent of Alabama’s black population and just a quarter of the state’s much large white population.
That means Doug’s gap exists somewhere among that vast majority of white Alabamians who live outside Democratic districts and voted overwhelmingly for Trump last fall. The problem is, these are the very voters Alabama Democrats have done precious little to court in recent years.
The chair of the Alabama Democratic Party, Worley, seems resigned to the party’s fate.
“You need to look at the demographics in North Alabama,” she said. “I don’t have to tell you that there’s a huge racial divide in the state of Alabama, along with the whole south. I mean, LBJ predicted that when he signed the Civil Rights legislation, you know, that he was crossing out the south.”
During the last legislative election cycle in 2014, in Worley’s second year as chair, Democrats lost seven seats in the state legislature, and didn’t even bother to field a candidate against Republican incumbents in another 58 districts.
Instead of attempting to compete, Worley’s strategy has been to stay put. Democrats now only have four legislative districts in North Alabama, for example, where they once had a majority of seats. The Democratic retreat to Birmingham and Black Belt is a microcosm of the national Democratic retrenchment on the coasts and in cities. More than a decade after former DNC Chair Howard Dean launched his 50-state strategy, the party is effectively nonexistent in many parts of the country. That makes capitalizing on an opportunity like the one Moore presents that much more difficult.
One of those remaining North Alabama Democrats is Rep. Craig Ford, the former minority leader in the state House. He has just two words for Worley and her fellow Democratic leaders who have given up on white Alabamians. “Party leadership,” he said. “I’m tellin’ ya man, I can’t tell ya enough: Party leadership is everything.”
Craig blames the leadership in the party that “made it all about race” and failed to tailor their message to a changing state. He also blames Worley, by name, for not encouraging Democrats to compete outside Birmingham and the Black Belt.
Doug agrees that the party is in shambles, though he refuses to go after Worley and the leadership. He traces things back to 2010, when the Democrats lost majorities in both houses of the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction, ushering in seven years of complete Republican control.
“When folks started losing their base, their offices, people didn’t know how to respond,” he said. “They didn’t know how to be a two-party state so instead of gelling around a cohesive party theme — not that it’s check the box, check the box, check the box, but general themes of Democratic party politics — they tried to outmaneuver Republicans to the right and you can’t do that. And so they continued to lose races, and then you get demoralized.”
Up until this point, Democrats have “never really had a party,” Jones continued. Instead, it was a coalition of politicians in a one-party state who called themselves Democrats for political necessity.
“I think if we can get those candidates out there, we will end up with a party structure,” Jones concluded, optimistically. “The rest will kind of fall into place.”
Ford is even more optimistic. With the right party leadership and the right candidates, he thinks Alabama’s Senate seat could turn blue.
“A Democrat could win that U.S. Senate seat,” he said, though he clarifies himself with the help of a friend. “Somebody besides a Republican could win that race.”