Through a unique confluence of events, Democrat Doug Jones managed to defy the deeply Republican leanings of Alabama and win a special election on Tuesday to represent the state in the Senate.
Still, the national progressive groups that raised money for Jones and marshaled volunteers on his behalf insist that his best route to a second term is to embrace populist policies and stick to core liberal convictions, rather than blazing the kind of cautious, moderate path more typical of red-state Democrats.
“The best way for Doug Jones to hold the seat is to legislate as a bold populist to fight for kitchen-table issues, fight for more money in people’s pockets,” said Kaitlin Sweeney, a spokeswoman for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which raised about $40,000 for Jones. “We could see him be a leader in issues that transcend partisan politics ― expanding health care to every American, making education funding fair, ensuring a living wage ― issues that could resonate with Democratic voters in Selma and Republican voters in Mobile.”
At the same time, Sweeney added, “Nobody is expecting him to come in and govern like a Jeff Merkley [D-Ore.] or an Elizabeth Warren [D-Mass.].”
But progressive leaders fear that Jones will instead heed the emerging chorus of pundits counseling him to emulate Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and other red-state Democratic lawmakers, whose conservatism ― even on economic policy ― is a sore point on the left.
Jones “should not follow the advice of D.C. insiders who tell him that he should be doing the bidding of corporations, telling him that he should be trying to find the middle ground, that he should be a Republican-lite or even worse a racist-lite,” said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Democracy for America, which raised $75,000 for Jones and mobilized its 12,000 Alabamian members to phone-bank and canvass for Jones. “He needs to fight for inclusive populist policies.”
At its core, these organizations’ advice for Jones, while self-validating, gets to the heart of a debate about how Democrats can win in challenging territory. Many in the party’s left wing have long maintained that a focus on delivering tangible economic benefits will both excite base voters and win over independents and Republicans in the most conservative areas. The 2016 loss of Hillary Clinton, who struggled at times to craft a compelling economic narrative and dispel perceptions of undue coziness with financial elites, has only made them more confident in their argument.
“Yes, a Democrat winning in Alabama is an anomaly in current modern, political speak,” Chamberlain said. “But that’s the reality only because Democrats continually don’t run on their values, they continually don’t run on inclusive populist ideas that are universally popular, accepted and actually impact everyone including Republicans.”
DFA pointed to a 2014 poll it commissioned with PCCC and other groups showing majority support for expanding Social Security in solidly Republican Texas and Kentucky.
“I am confident that Republicans in Alabama are no different,” Chamberlain said.
And even if Jones does not buy an electoral pitch for populism, Chamberlain added, he would do well to embrace the moral urgency of the moment ― come what may at the ballot box.
“The bottom line is that we’re in a situation right now where we are fighting the most corrupt, corporate president in the history of America who is willing to do anything, say anything to divide the country in as many ways as he possibly can,” Chamberlain said. “With that lens on it, if I were Doug Jones, I might very possibly say, ‘This is my YOLO moment. I’m gonna do whatever it takes to deliver the highest amount of change as possible in my limited time in Congress.’”
Some policies where DFA, PCCC and their allies believe Jones has the best chance of pushing a progressive agenda with crossover appeal are expanding Social Security, raising the minimum wage, protecting voting rights ― and even expanding public health care.
Rather than embrace single-payer health care ― or “Medicare for all,” as progressives have dubbed it ― Sweeney suggested that Jones could advocate a Medicare buy-in for the entire population.
“Medicare is one of those programs that’s popular all across the country, including red states like Alabama,” she said. “A way to bring people along on Medicare for all is allow people to buy into the program and see what it’s like.”
The way Jones ― best known for his work as a U.S. attorney convicting the Ku Klux Klan members responsible for the deadly 1963 bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama, church ― ran his campaign has given liberals reason for optimism.
Jones pleased many observers by eschewing the social conservatism that characterized white Southern Democrats of previous decades. He is a strong supporter of abortion rights, LGBTQ rights, criminal justice reform and policies to limit climate change, which he acknowledges is a grave, man-made threat.
Jones also describes health care as a “right,” backing “improvement” of the Affordable Care Act over repeal. He has said he is open to the possibility of a “public option” for health insurance that might resemble the Medicare buy-in mentioned by PCCC.
In his victory speech Tuesday night, Jones called on Congress to immediately renew funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides coverage to low- and moderate-income kids who don’t qualify for Medicaid. (Sixteen states are due to run out of the funds needed to keep the program running by the end of January, if Congress fails to act.)
But Jones is already on the brink of disappointing activists who want him to wade into last-minute attempts to thwart the Republican tax bill.
Murshed Zaheed, political director of Credo Mobile, a progressive phone company with an online network of 5 million activists, asked Jones to join Democratic leaders in calling for the GOP to delay a vote on the massive tax bill until Jones is seated in the Senate.
“This is his first test,” Zaheed said. “He needs to speak out now. That’s gonna tell us a lot about how he is going to represent Alabamians over the next three years.”
Thus far, Jones has shown no such willingness to speak out on the matter. Referring to the timing of when he is seated in the Senate, Jones told the popular liberal podcast “Pod Save America” that “we’ve still got a process in Alabama that we have to go though.”
And Jones appears most comfortable speaking about his desire to project a more sophisticated view of lawmakers from the Deep South by dint of his liberal stances on social issues and openness to bipartisan cooperation.
“Unfortunately, [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions’s voice is what people think of when they think of the typical Southern politician,” Jones told The Washington Post. “And that’s not true at all. I want to have the bully pulpit to challenge those views in public all the time.”
At the same time, Jones told the Post that he won based on a focus on “kitchen table” economic issues.
There is indeed some evidence to support this idea. In addition to sending some 100,000 text messages to nudge moderate-propensity Democrats to turn out for Jones, the Working Families Party tested about 25 digital ads in more conservative rural counties outside the city of Huntsville in northern Alabama.
The ads that elicited the most interest from voters, according to WFP spokesman Joe Dinkin, framed the election as a choice between two sharply divergent economic visions. “Roy Moore wants to take away your health care while cutting taxes for billionaires,” one of the successful digital ads declared.
Governing as an advocate for a higher minimum wage and greater health care access is likely to have crossover appeal for the same reason, Dinkin posited.
Jones “represents a pretty poor state,” Dinkin said. “There is political upside and moral necessity in him embracing a progressive agenda.”