Democrats are salivating at the chance to pick up a Senate seat in the Deep South. When Jeff Sessions vacated the position to become attorney general, it seemed safe to assume that his successor would be a fellow Republican. Alabama is, after all, where Donald Trump defeated Democratic rival Hillary Clinton by nearly 30 percentage points in 2016.
But now Republicans are stuck with Roy Moore, a nominee who has been accused of pursuing a number of women when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s. And Democrats have a real shot at winning the Dec. 12 election with their candidate, Doug Jones ― but only, they say, if the national party stays away, or at least stays quiet.
“We see this as a race that Doug Jones is running. He’s running it with Alabama people, and it’s going to be decided by Alabama voters. We’re really not looking for outside help,” said Giles Perkins, an attorney who is chairman of the Jones campaign.
There’s been a significant amount of debate on the left about whether Democrats should do more to help Jones, reflecting a long-running frustration that the national party doesn’t invest enough in candidates in traditionally red states.
So far, the national party hasn’t thrown a bunch of money in the race. It hasn’t aired TV ads. And the only big-name surrogate who has gone to Alabama to campaign for Jones is former Vice President Joe Biden ― although that was more because Biden and Jones have been friends for decades rather than as part of a major push by the party.
That isn’t to say that Democrats are ignoring the race. A Democratic operative said they are working behind the scenes to provide “strategic support” to the Jones campaign, just to make sure the Alabama staff has everything it needs to succeed.
“The Democrats have been doing a lot, but focused on the fact that Doug Jones has put together a really good campaign,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who is leading the Democratic Party’s campaign efforts in Senate races this cycle. “So we’re doing what we can to support Doug Jones’ campaign. From day one, we’ve been encouraging people to help him. But I think the story of this campaign is Doug Jones has put together a great organization.”
Strategists say the party is trying to learn from its mistakes when it comes to Alabama: How does it support a viable candidate in a tough race while not going in too heavily and ruining his chances?
Democrats say one key lesson is avoiding what happened in the special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. There, Democrat Jon Ossoff ran against Republican Karen Handel in a June election. Although the wealthy suburban district is traditionally Republican, it seemed Democrats could win there in light of Trump’s unpopularity. The race garnered a significant amount of enthusiasm and funding from Democrats nationwide.
Ultimately, the money didn’t matter ― and potentially hurt Ossoff. Republicans successfully tied him to the national party and fear-mongered about how he would be a tool of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and her liberal California politics. The race became all about Ossoff and the national Democratic Party.
Sure, it excited Democrats, but it also excited Republicans. And in a district where Republicans hold the advantage, that meant Handel won.
That same calculus is playing out in Alabama’s Senate race. Republicans have an even greater advantage among that electorate. So Democrats have three main objectives:
Expand the Democratic electorate (primarily by increasing African-American turnout).
Persuade some Republicans who are appalled by Moore to vote for Jones.
Hope that Republicans who don’t like Moore stay home on Election Day.
On the first objective, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) ― a civil rights icon who was born in Alabama ― has come to the state to campaign for Jones. Jones has been campaigning in urban areas with heavy African-American populations, and he’s been emphasizing his record as a U.S. attorney who prosecuted the Ku Klux Klan.
In order to persuade more mainstream Republicans to vote for him, Jones has been stressing his desire to work across the aisle and recently released TV ads with Republicans talking about why they will be pulling the lever for a Democrat on Election Day.
He is not going hard after Trump, who, after all, remains popular in Alabama.
Jones has so far been relatively quiet on the sexual misconduct allegations against Moore. He’s put out short statements and has alluded to them in an ad, but he is not focusing on them. Instead, he’s trying to keep the message on “kitchen table” issues, such as education, jobs and health care.
Democrats are largely stepping aside and letting Republicans struggle about what to do with Moore.
“I’m not sure anything they can do at this point would be helpful to Doug Jones. They can just sit back and watch Roy Moore’s camp implode,” said Elizabeth BeShears, a libertarian communications consultant in Birmingham.
“When you raise awareness of the election, you’re not helping yourself,” she added.
In other words, there’s a chance that a significant number of Republicans may just stay home on Dec. 12, which would help boost Jones.
Giving a candidate money is traditionally a function of the national party. So far, neither the Democratic National Committee nor the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has transferred funds to Jones. A handful of Democratic senators, however, have sent out email solicitations on his behalf.
And, at this point, money is not a problem for Jones: He’s reportedly been pulling in around $250,000 a day in the wake of the Moore sexual misconduct accusations.
“We’ve raised enough money to make this a competitive race,” Perkins said. “We’re going to continue to reach out to people for more resources so that we can tell Doug’s story and hopefully bring about a win.”
Jones also is set on TV advertising. According to Politico, Jones has spent 14 times more on advertising than Moore has. And he was on the air for about a month with positive biographical spots before Moore ran any ads.
All this doesn’t mean that Jones has a lock on the race. Alabama is still a Republican state, and BeShears says the fact that Jones supports abortion rights remains a non-starter for many Republicans.
“I think if Roy Moore wins, it’ll be because of that single issue. ... It is the only thing causing a lot of Republicans pause,” she said.
Abortion is an issue that Republicans have pushed in an attempt to make Jones look extreme and to tie him to the national party, daring Planned Parenthood to come to the state to campaign for him.
But so far the race has largely stayed a contest of “Roy Moore versus the other guy,” as BeShears put it. Moore has become known nationally because of his scandal, but Jones and his reputation have stayed more local. And that’s exactly what Democrats are hoping will keep happening until Election Day.