His opponents have jumped on impeachment, attempting to make what is already a politically perilous situation even more painful for Jones. The Alabama GOP held a press conference earlier this month saying it would hold him accountable for voting against the president. Rep. Bradley Byrne, one of Jones’ potential opponents, compared it to the Kavanaugh vote and said he thinks Jones is “predisposed to vote against President Trump.”
After dealing with impeachment at the top of his town hall, he got no questions on it — though he faced a relatively friendly audience of five dozen people, nearly all of whom applauded when he answered the first question by confidently saying he’d win a full term in the Senate.
His toughest questions were from his own side: One woman in a Bernie Sanders shirt, who said she backs him even though he isn’t progressive enough, asked about corporations paying more taxes to alleviate student loan debt (Jones said he doesn’t link the two together, and dismissed the idea of a wealth tax); and a man later vented about the state of the Democratic Party in Alabama. The state party is in shambles, and Jones and other Democrats are publicly feuding with the state party chair in an effort to enact changes.
Republicans are convinced that wherever impeachment lands, Jones has given them plenty of ammo to defeat him. But the GOP has to worry about a crowded field that includes Roy Moore, the defrocked former judge who lost to Jones after facing credible allegations of sexual misconduct from decades ago. Moore says the race was “basically stolen” and plans to run a similar anti-establishment campaign.
Even with Moore in the race, the current GOP frontrunners are Byrne, who argues his background is well known from his congressional races and a previous unsuccessful run for governor, and Tommy Tuberville, the former Auburn University football coach, who has led early polls and earned a key endorsement from the Alabama Farmers Federation political arm. Also running: Secretary of State John Merrill, who has the advantage of having won statewide before, and Arnold Mooney, a state representative already running TV commercials aimed at evangelical voters, an effort to crack into Moore’s base of support.
A divisive primary could help Jones: He has $5 million in the bank, nearly as much as all five of his opponents combined.
Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said he is “highly confident” the GOP will flip Alabama next fall, and that Republicans will nominate someone who can win. When Jones was first elected in 2017, many Republicans expected him to side with them on some big-ticket issues to earn some crossover voter support.
“Some of his votes have kind of surprised me purely from a standpoint of political survival,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a member of GOP leadership. “I think he realizes he was extraordinarily lucky last time, and his luck may not continue.”
Jones dismisses the idea that he should have triangulated more. Asked why he hadn’t, he popped his finger in his mouth and mimed putting it into the wind to mock the idea of voting on political whims, and dissed the media for expecting him to do so. Interviews with several Democratic senators revealed a level of admiration for his approach.
“I think on some level it’s freeing to know they’re going to attack you no matter what you do,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “Because then you might as well just do the right thing.”
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), the Senate Democrat who has crossed party lines most, plans to campaign with Jones soon, potentially on a football Saturday — Manchin is close friends with Nick Saban, Alabama’s football coach, who endorsed Manchin last year but stays neutral in in-state races.
“The bottom line is it’s all about Alabama,” Manchin said. “That’s all Doug talks about. It’s all he cares about.”
Rep. Terri Sewell, the only other Democrat in the state’s delegation, said even his vote against Kavanaugh had an upside: He energized his Democratic base, which he needs to turn out at record levels.
“I think he is living up to what he thinks are the values that most Alabamians cherish,” Sewell said.
Jones admitted that in looking at the current top of the presidential primary, Sanders or Elizabeth Warren as the nominee would make his reelection considerably tougher, forcing him to work harder to separate himself. He’s committed to supporting the Democratic nominee but said he’d voice disagreements on things like the Green New Deal and “Medicare for All.” But he also said he thinks Trump is weaker now than in 2016, saying the president has a lot of “soft support,” and that Democrats will be “more competitive” in 2020.
He’s hedged his message to work for either result: He says Trump would need Democrats willing to cross lines if he wins a second term, but that Alabamians would want a moderating force in the Senate to pull the Democrats to the middle if their party takes back the White House.
Jones said people “damn sure” underestimated his chances in 2017, and that he gets frustrated with those who already write him off this time around.
“I’ll only change that perception once I give my victory speech again, like I did the last time,” Jones said. “I changed it for 24 hours, then all of the sudden all the pundits said, ‘[He’s the] most vulnerable Democrat in 2020.’ When I win in 2020, I’ll be the most vulnerable Democrat in 2026. That’s just the way it is. Alabama is not going to change that quickly, and it may never change to a point where a Democrat is seen other than as an underdog. And that’s fine.”