- The Washington Times
Sunday, January 26, 2020

The last thing Alabama Democratic Sen. Doug Jones may have wanted was beginning the year tied to the hip of his party’s liberal leadership given that he is running for reelection.

But with the impeachment trial of President Trump underway, that’s exactly where he found himself last week, voting in lockstep repeatedly with Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, in party-line votes on the trial’s format.

He also found himself under attack in his home state.

“Despite all of Jones’ comments leading up to the trial where he insisted that he’s not going to cast partisan votes, he voted strictly along party lines,” Yellowhammer News, a right-leaning Alabama website, declared last week. “Schumer’s Alabama senator is doing what Schumer wants.”

America First Policies, a pro-Trump nonprofit, is targeting Mr. Jones’ impeachment votes in an ad campaign that started last week.

“For him the choice is, ‘do I want to get hit by a car or a truck?’” said Alabama GOP Chairwoman Terry Lathan. “The damage is going to be bad either way, but he can’t be something he’s not, and he’s a liberal, fighting his liberal urges in a conservative state.”

Mr. Jones has been regarded as the most vulnerable senator ever since he captured the seat in 2017, an improbable perfect storm special election. Running in a year with no national election on the ballot and flush with out-of-state cash, Mr. Jones beat by 1.7 percentage points former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, a Republican who faced allegations he had sexually assaulted girls decades ago.

Mr. Moore has always denied the allegations and is again running for the seat. The most recent polling shows he is, again, Mr. Jones’ best chance at reelection. Mr. Jones is losing against every other Republican candidate, according to a December poll by JMC Analytics, a Southern political organization.

Those Republicans include former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Republican Rep. Bradley Byrne and former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville. A handful of conservative state lawmakers also are running, a situation that makes it likely that the top vote-getters in the March 3 primary will be forced into a March 31 runoff.

From a cash and organizational standpoint, Mr. Byrne would seem to have an edge. While Mr. Tuberville has shown surprising ability as a retail politician, resources could be an issue for him.

In the most recent filings, Mr. Byrne had nearly $2.5 million on hand compared to Mr. Tuberville’s $1.4 million, although the Byrne campaign’s $600,000 in spending is nearly double that of Mr. Tuberville’s, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Mr. Sessions entered the race with some $2.4 million already amassed from his earlier campaigns. Despite a prolonged absence from the stump, Mr. Sessions already had a strong and moneyed Alabama network that he can tap. That makes him a more formidable candidate, especially in what is shaping up to be an intense two-month campaign. His campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Byrne went on the attack against Mr. Sessions last week, telling an Alabama radio station he thought Mr. Sessions’ turn as attorney general had so soured his relationship with Mr. Trump that he would be unlikely to get his endorsement.

“But [Mr. Trump] has some really hard feelings about Jeff, he really does,” Mr. Byrne said. “Even if he doesn’t say another word, take those two quotes: ‘The biggest mistake I ever made as president was appointing Jeff Sessions U.S. attorney general.’ Or this quote, ‘Jeff Sessions is a disgrace to the great state of Alabama.’ Those two quotes that he made several months ago — I don’t see how Jeff gets over those.”

Mr. Trump’s resentment of Mr. Sessions stems from his recusal from the Russia investigation.

Nevertheless, part of Mr. Sessions’ pitch to voters is a reminder that he endorsed Mr. Trump long before any other serious Republicans did and that he remains a loyal figure in the president’s self-described mission to “drain the swamp.”

The Sessions camp has leaked internal polling it says shows him at 44% support compared to Mr. Tuberville at 21% and Mr. Byrne at 14%. While few Alabama political experts believe Mr. Sessions has that much of a lead, there is widespread agreement the GOP is headed to a runoff in March.

The Alabama Farmers Federation, which has endorsed Mr. Tuberville, conducted a poll that showed Mr. Sessions with a much narrower 35%-31% lead over the former Auburn coach. That survey, conducted in December, put Mr. Byrne at 12% and Mr. Moore at 8%.

Mr. Sessions’ long career in public office means he has plateaued in terms of recognition, and Mr. Tuberville’s time on the sidelines at Auburn made him famous, Mr. Byrne’s campaign manager said, adding that presents an opening for him.

“We have the most room to grow and we have the money to do it,” Seth Morrow told The Washington Times. “And we feel especially good in a runoff, where we see a lot of advantages for us.”

Mr. Morrow conceded Mr. Sessions probably has a small lead at the moment, but a runoff seems inevitable and that spells opportunity for Mr. Byrne and Mr. Tuberville. The Byrne campaign has seized some New Year’s momentum with an advertising campaign criticizing figures such as Minnesota Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

“We are the only ones who have a record of supporting President Trump — we voted for the trade bill, we fought against impeachment,” Mr. Morrow said. “At this point, we’ve been on TV by ourselves for a month and a half and we’re kind of excited right now.”

Whoever wins the Republican nomination looks to be in good shape against Mr. Jones. The recent JMC Analytics poll showed Mr. Jones losing to Mr. Tuberville 47%-40%, to Mr. Sessions 46%-41%, and to Mr. Byrne 44%-40%.

Even if Mr. Trump does not make an endorsement, his presence on the general election ticket in November will be huge, Ms. Lathan said. When Mr. Jones won the special election to fill the seat left vacant by Mr. Sessions, some 650,000 regular Republican voters in the state stayed home. That group is unlikely to repeat its no-show performance this year. In the 2018 midterm elections, GOP candidates hauled in more than 1 million votes in landslide wins.

At the moment, Mr. Jones has the luxury of running unopposed and is free to criticize Republicans generally.

“What we’re seeing is a Republican Party that is trying to divide people,” Mr. Jones said in a recent interview with state media. “That’s all they seem to want to do is talk about us versus them and divide people and not talk about anything but the president.”

Mr. Jones’ impeachment votes concerning Mr. Trump, however, have highlighted a voting record that, while moderate by the standards of the Democratic base, puts him at odds with most of his constituents. Overall, Mr. Jones has voted with the Trump administration less than 37% of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight’s tracking.

The most prominent such vote came when he opposed Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination, but Mr. Jones also voted against funding for Mr. Trump’s proposed border wall, against Eugene Scalia as secretary of labor and has stood opposed to every move the Trump administration has made in the Middle East.

And his biggest contributions come from afar. Employees of California’s Alphabet, the parent company of Google, account for the biggest source of his contributions, and of the $5 million cash his campaign held at the end of 2019, nearly 80% of it came from big individual donations or PACs, according to OpenSecrets.

The combination of Mr. Trump’s coattails and Mr. Jones’ voting record will be a potent one at the polls, Ms. Lathan predicted.

“The contrast couldn’t be clearer. He simply can’t let down the millions he gets from California and New York,” she said. “We’re confident, but not cocky, we’ll win in November.”

• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

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