Alabama Republicans Luther Strange and Roy Moore are preparing to battle for Jeff Sessions’ Senate seat in a primary run-off that will pit President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s support and money against a solidly evangelical base. Meanwhile, Doug Jones is sitting back easy.
Jones, the Democratic nominee, won Tuesday’s primary with over 50 percent of the vote, meaning that he avoids a run-off and can now focus his efforts on the December general election — when he will face the difficult task of attempting to flip Sessions’ seat to Democrats for the first time since 1992.
While the odds would typically be low, pollsters and strategists suggest Jones may have a shot if Moore — an extreme and divisive figure who was removed as state Supreme Court chief when he refused to obey a federal court order to remove the Ten Commandments from a judicial building — secures the Republican nomination. Moore finished first in the Republican primary with 38.9 percent of the vote, while Strange, the president and McConnell’s pick, got just 32.8 percent.
Jones, a former U.S. attorney, is best known for successfully prosecuting in 2002 two of the Ku Klux Klan members responsible for an infamous church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama four decades earlier. At a time when the KKK and white supremacists are emboldened by Trump’s presidency, and with renewed attention on the need to condemn their hateful and violent rhetoric after the Charlottesville rally, Jones said he thinks that even a state that overwhelmingly elected Trump could change its tune.
ThinkProgress spoke with Jones by phone Wednesday about his campaign and his attempt to turn a southern Senate seat blue:
How are you feeling about Tuesday’s election?
Yesterday went even better than we had hoped it was going to go. We felt good going in. We felt that we had an opportunity to win it without a run-off, but I think the numbers really surprised all of us. I’ve heard from so many people who haven’t voted in a Democratic primary ever, or at least in years. They came out to vote for me. We’ve got an incredible amount of momentum, despite the low turnout. We knew this was going to be a low turnout race.
Looking at the Republican side, what does former conservative judge Roy Moore’s first place finish say about the party?
Everyone knew that Roy Moore had a fairly significant base that has been around for a while now, and no one was going to break that base. No one was going to crack into it, not even the president.
I also think that it shows that the president and McConnell and those guys may not have the power down here that they think they have. Even though people voted for the president down here, I’m not so sure that they want somebody who — the only thing they run on is Trump’s agenda. I think there’s an independence of voters in Alabama that people underestimate, and when it comes down to it in December, that independence is going to show through in a big way.
What does it do to your chances if Moore secures the nomination?
I’m not worried about who it is. I think our chances are really very good. It doesn’t really matter who the nominee is. And the reason I say that is because the Republican Party here has become a group of factions and they don’t seem to like each other. But more importantly, I think that the message that we have now is beginning and will resonate with people from one end of the state to the other. The health care debate has really gotten people focused on issues, rather than just party politics.
As a whole, I think people want to see a change. They have gotten burned by their public officials a lot in Alabama over the last couple years, and they want to see a change, they want to see leadership, they want to see transparency. They’re looking for somebody that’s going to represent them, and I’m not sure that either candidate in the Republican Party can carry that mantle.
People are saying one of the reasons Moore did so well is that Alabamians are mad at the Senate for failing to repeal Obamacare. Where do you think you play into that?
I don’t think that’s true at all. I think the issue we’ve seen is that once people around here started understanding what the Affordable Care Act really was and how it has benefiting folks in this state and how it could have benefited even more, had the Republicans decided to expand Medicaid, I don’t think that was a factor at all. I think just the general shenanigans up there — people are tired of that and they want to go against the grain. I don’t think it was question of not repealing Obamacare. I think it was a general perception that they’re just kind of incompetent up there. They’re doing things behind closed doors and nobody knows what they were trying to do.
What other issues do you think you need to focus on in order to flip this seat?
I think health care can do it. I think economic issues — I really believe that people are going to start looking at issues of jobs, the economy, the income gap, health care, education. Those are the kinds of things people are concerned about on a daily basis. I think those are going to be the issues that are going to carry us forward throughout the campaign, and ultimately to victory. People talk about the fact that this hasn’t been a Democratic seat in 19 years now. Well you know before that, it was a Democratic seat for 120. Things change. And I think you’re seeing changes in Alabama and changes throughout the country. I think that helps us a lot.
Trump’s support among Republicans has eroded somewhat this week after his response to Charlottesville. Do you think the erratic nature of the president could bolster your campaign?
Well, you never know what’s going to happen. I think people in this state have a history of wanting some political checks and balances. They’re beginning to see and realize that a dominant one-party state just really doesn’t do good things for the state. They didn’t like it when it was the Democrats, they don’t like it now that it’s Republicans. And now they’re looking and seeing in D.C. the same kind of thing. I think the more you see things coming out of the Trump administration that get sidetracked on an agenda that people voted on, then yeah, it will help us. At this point, there’s a lot of people who say that we don’t regret voting for Donald Trump, but at the same time, we need an independent voice up there to make sure that whoever is representing us is representing the people of Alabama. Not everything that Donald Trump is going and saying is representing the people of Alabama.
Luther Strange was on Fox News and was asked about the president’s comments on Charlottesville, and he said he hadn’t seen them because he was too busy campaigning yesterday.
[Laughing] He really said that? Oh my god.
Do you believe that?
I find that incredibly hard to believe. It’s been the most dominant thing in the news. I was out campaigning. I was worried about a run-off. We didn’t have 7 or 8 million dollars that was spent on us, but we were out campaigning. I followed what the president said. I know exactly what he said. I saw his comments on Saturday and then 48 hours later I saw him read from a teleprompter in what appeared to be a somewhat insincere statement. And then I saw him yesterday being Donald Trump, just lashing out at the media, defending folks. It’s incredible that nobody saw it. You’ve got to wonder – if a sitting United States senator had not seen those comments, you’ve got to wonder what kind of job he is really doing.
By the way, the last I saw, Roy Moore has refused to make a comment. He didn’t say he didn’t see the comments, but he’s really refused to take a side. Which tells me that both of those candidates are going to try to continue to not alienate a Klan-based white supremacist base so they can get their votes. They’re just pandering to those people by refusing to condemn them, and that is repugnant.
McConnell’s super PAC has already poured $8 million into the Republican primary and can be expected to spend even more on the run-off and general election. Do you think the Democratic Party should devote equal resources to this race?
I don’t know. We’re going to run our race and we’re going to see how things go. I don’t think that this is necessarily a national party race. We’re going to focus on Alabama and we’re going to let the chips fall where they’re going to fall. I believe that we’re going to get a significant bit of attention from across the country — this is after all the first Senate race in the Trump era. I don’t think that either of the Republican nominees are going to be very strong.
Not only is it the first Senate race in the Trump era but it’s also Jeff Sessions’ seat. That alone gets people’s attention. We’re going to have interest. I had the Congressional Black Caucus do some robocalling for me, Congressman Tim Ryan came down, Joe Biden did an endorsement and a robocall for us. We’re going to have support from national leaders. Whether that amounts to money — it doesn’t cost that much. I don’t need the kind of money that [Democratic candidate Jon] Ossoff had in Georgia to run a competitive campaign. We’re going to be able to run the kind of campaign we need to down here and stay as independent as we can.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.