Can Doug Jones Win a Full Term in Alabama?

Alabama’s junior senator, Democrat Doug Jones, has been in office for only 13 months, but he’s already preparing to face voters again in 2020. With the Senate at 53 Republicans and 47 Democrats, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer can’t afford to lose any seats next year if he hopes to win back control of the chamber. Does Jones have any chance of winning, or is the handwriting already on the wall for a GOP pick-up in Alabama?

The top race handicappers are split on Jones’s re-election prospects.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race “Leans Republican,” while The Cook Political Report handicaps the contest as “Leans Democrat” and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball classifies it as a “Toss-up.”

Actually, I don’t agree with any of those calls, though I’m closest to Inside Elections’, where I remain a senior editor. I don’t think Jones has much chance at all of holding on to his seat next year.

Simply put, his special election win was a fluke, not likely to be repeated.

The special

Jones, 64, served a little more than three years as U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama during President Bill Clinton’s second term.

He had never been elected to office when he jumped into the Senate special election to fill the remainder of Jeff Sessions’s unexpired term.

Jones had little serious Democratic opposition, winning the primary, and the nomination, with two-thirds of the vote. But only 165,000 votes were cast in the primary, much less than half of the 423,000 votes cast on the GOP side.

No Republican received a majority of that primary’s vote, so the party had a runoff between the top-two finishers: former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore (38.9 percent); and appointed incumbent and former state Attorney General Luther Strange (32.8 percent).

While the national GOP establishment was strongly behind Strange, third-place primary finisher Rep. Mo Brooks (19.7 percent) endorsed Moore.

Brooks called the runoff “an epic battle between the people of Alabama who put America first and the Washington swamp that hopes to buy our Senate seat and put America last.”

Moore won the runoff with 54.6 percent of the vote and moved into the special election as a damaged nominee.

However, many national Republicans, including President Donald Trump, who had preferred Strange, rallied around Moore’s candidacy, hoping to keep the seat in GOP hands.

Moore brought a lifetime of political baggage to the Dec. 12, 2017, special election, including being removed from the bench once, being suspended from the bench another time, alleged ties to white nationalist groups, and allegations of sexual misconduct over the years.

Jones ended up squeezing past Moore 50 percent to 48.3 percent in a major upset — and the first Senate victory for a Democrat in Alabama since Richard Shelby was re-elected in 1992. (Shelby switched to the GOP after the 1994 elections.)

2020 outlook

Jones’s special election victory was entirely due to Moore’s nomination.

It was not a repudiation of Trump, a reflection of the state’s partisan realignment or evidence of Jones’ unique appeal.

Fairly or unfairly, Moore was seen by many state voters, including conservatives and Republicans, as a sexual predator, and some of those voters either cast their ballots for Jones or stayed home on Election Day.

In a sense, the special election became a referendum on Moore.

Jones, who had no legislative record that needed defending, campaigned as a moderate Democrat.

That made him acceptable to some voters looking for an alternative to the former judge. While partisan Republicans and conservatives still saw a vote for Jones as a vote against Trump and his conservative agenda, others simply regarded Moore as unacceptable.

Indeed, given all of Moore’s personal and political baggage, and a career of confrontation and controversy, it’s remarkable that he won a Republican Senate primary and almost won the vote in the special election.

Alabama remains as Republican as it has been for the past decade or two.

The GOP vote in the state has been stable during the past four presidential races. George W. Bush drew 62.5 percent in the 2004 presidential contest, while John McCain drew 60.3 percent four years later. Mitt Romney received 60.6 percent of the vote in 2012, and Trump won 62.1 percent in 2016.

Trump remains popular in the state. A December 2018 Morning Consult poll of the states found that his job approval had slipped in Alabama from 62 percent in January 2017 to 58 percent last month, a relatively small dip.

His populism appeals to many white voters in the state. If Republicans select a 2020 nominee without Moore’s baggage — which should be easy — Jones will face a fundamentally different challenge.

He will need to get the votes of Republicans and conservatives who remain loyal to Trump and to the Republican agenda on taxes, spending, immigration, health care, abortion and gay/transgender rights.

Jones hasn’t been the most liberal Democrat, but his high-profile vote against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh could well be enough to define him to Alabama voters as liberal and anti-Trump. (West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who narrowly won re-election in November from another very Republican state, was the lone Democrat to vote for Kavanaugh’s nomination.)

Given the state’s fundamentals, I don’t see how the Alabama race can be rated anything other than “Likely Republican.”

The state is polarized along racial and partisan lines, and the 2020 Senate race is likely to look nothing like the 2017 contest, when the Republican nominee had baggage that was disqualifying.

Obviously, Jones’ prospects would improve if the Republicans select another damaged Senate nominee, or even if Democrats nominate a more appealing presidential nominee (possibly like former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu or former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper).

So, while there are developments that could change Jones’ prospects, making them better or even worse than they start, the reality of the 2020 Alabama Senate race is simple: Doug Jones is a Democrat and a moderate in a state that is very Republican and very conservative. He starts, at least in my book, as a heavy underdog for re-election.

Note: This column initially appeared in Roll Call on January 9, 2019.

When History Overtakes a Campaign Promise

The press release from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was groundbreaking, if difficult to believe.

The chairman of the DCCC said his committee “will not fund any Democratic candidate who initiates attacks against their Republican opponents of an ‘intimate’ personal nature.”

In response, the National Republican Congressional Committee’s chairman made the same pledge and wrote that the agreement negotiated by the two committee heads “has the potential to truly change the tone and tenure of modern-day American politics for the better. We each agreed that there is no room in either of our parties for those who would make personal attacks on another candidate’s private life when those attacks have no bearing on a candidate’s fitness or ability to serve in office.”

If you think I just made up those quotes or the bipartisan agreement was the product of my imagination, you are very wrong. That agreement was forged almost 20 years ago, on Sept. 27, 1998, by Texas Democrat Martin Frost, who chaired the DCCC, and Georgia Republican John Linder, his counterpart at the NRCC.

But while Frost’s press release was limited to announcing the agreement, Linder used his letter to complain that President Bill Clinton’s allies were trying to discredit his critics: “As we have seen all too often, those whose views differ from the White House often become targets of vicious smears from ‘unnamed sources.’ In today’s Washington Post, Howard Kurtz writes on the White House’s ‘history of attacking its accusers.’ Kurtz writes, ‘James Carville, the president’s friend, openly declared ‘war’ on independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, and White House officials publicly released negative information about Kathleen Willey after the former White House volunteer accused Clinton of ‘groping her.’”

Linder was particularly upset about rumors being circulated that decades earlier, Illinois Rep. Henry J. Hyde, who chaired the House Judiciary Committee, had had an extramarital affair.

He complained: “The personal smear campaign being waged against my friend Henry Hyde is a shameful attempt by a hateful few to besmirch one of the most distinguished men to ever honor our nation with his service. These attacks are nothing more than a slanderous bid to intimidate the man charged with overseeing possible impeachment hearings against President Bill Clinton.”

About a week earlier, on Sept. 18, The Washington Post had noted that a “leading Republican critic of Clinton, former U.S. attorney Joseph E. diGenova, said yesterday: ‘Their denials are worthless at this point. There is a presumption they are responsible at this point. They’ve made no bones that their tactic is to destroy anyone who disagrees with them. The burden has now shifted to them to disprove the fact that they were responsible for this.’”

(That’s the same diGenova who has defended President Donald Trump and almost joined the president’s legal defense team.)

Changing times

While Trump’s affairs — and denials — are getting plenty of attention, most political campaigns have moved beyond issues of personal, “private” conduct.

Indeed, the focus on the current president’s behavior is less about his “private” behavior than it is about whether he lied, obstructed justice or benefited from the help of a foreign government.

Yes, Pennsylvania Republican Tim Murphy resigned his seat in the House after it was revealed that he had an affair and urged his mistress to get an abortion, and former judge Roy Moore’s Senate candidacy was sunk after revelations about his past personal behavior.

But Moore won a Republican primary even as rumors swirled about bad behavior years earlier, and GOP Reps. Blake Farenthold of Texas and Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee have survived personal scandals.

Personal scandals aren’t what they once were in American politics, though the recent attention to inappropriate sexual behavior has to some extent redefined what behavior is disqualifying for an officeholder or political hopeful and what is not.

I wouldn’t expect to see today’s campaign committees again swearing off future attacks, and it should be clear to all that the 1998 Frost-Linder agreement did not, as the Georgia Republican hoped, “change the tone and tenure of modern-day American politics for the better.”

Challengers and underdogs must still use multiple lines of attack to have any chance of winning, and White House spokesmen and leakers still try to discredit their opponents and silence their critics.

Getting worse

If anything, the nastiness has increased, even as attacks on a candidate’s private life — “when those attacks have no bearing on a candidate’s fitness or ability to serve in office” — seem to have become less important to voters.

The ideological division between the two parties has grown, and new platforms have made it easier for bizarre accusations based on baseless conspiracy theories to enter the political debate and to circulate very publicly  — rather than through whispering campaigns of many decades ago.

The result is that the current political environment — and certainly the current White House — has taken us further away from civility, thoughtfulness, and the tenor and tone that Frost and Linder said they hoped to achieve. And that is a great pity.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on April 3, 2018.

Why 2018 Isn’t Already in the Bag for Democrats

With the president’s job approval ratings sitting in the mid-30s, why isn’t a Democratic House takeover next year a slam dunk?

The answer doesn’t have anything to do with the low unemployment rate, the growth of the gross domestic product over the last two quarters, or the soaring Dow Jones Industrials average. Nor does it have anything to do with the Republican tax cut plan or ISIS, or with the fact that “anything can happen.”

In spite of Donald Trump’s poor job approval numbers, his meanspirited denunciations of the media and the FBI, his exaggerations and untruths, his endorsement of Roy Moore, his attacks on honorable public servants like Bob Corker, Mitt Romney and Jeff Flake, and his repeatedly unwise statements that undercut or embarrass America’s allies in Europe and Asia, the president has not yet cost his party control of the House of Representatives.

The reason involves campaign dynamics and partisanship.

Just as Senate hopeful Moore has tried to rally his base in the final weeks of the Alabama Senate election, Donald Trump, his cheerleaders at Fox News, and Republican strategists will try to turn the 2018 midterms away from being a referendum on Donald Trump’s character, integrity and judgment and into a referendum on party and ideology. And if they are able to do that, Republicans can limit their damage eleven months from now.

Moore was at his weakest when the public focus was on his behavior and his character. Polling in Alabama showed Democrat Doug Jones pulling ahead when that was the case. But as the focus in Alabama changed to Jones – to his party label, position on abortion and overall ideology – Republican voters started to “come home.” (Whether enough have come home is still an open question.)

That’s only natural, since election results reflect the voters’ agenda.

Trump’s post-inauguration speeches, like the recent one in Pensacola, Florida, are campaign rallies intended to play to his base and rally his supporters. He often portrays his opponents as “evil.”

These rallies rarely seek to convince Americans about his policy proposals. Rather, they offer red meat to people already committed to Trump – and to those whose support has started to wane.

Sure, campaign rallies are often about mobilizing supporters, but they rarely are as narrowly targeted as Trump’s are. The president doesn’t seem to care at all about broadening his appeal, no matter how narrow his existing support.

Trump is betting that by the time the midterms roll around he will be able to bring back into the fold voters who were turned off by his style and language but who distrust the national media, liberals and Democrats more.

Given the states with Senate races in 2018 and the relatively few competitive House districts, that’s a calculated gamble by Trump and his allies.

Democrats need to net 24 seats next year to take back the House. That’s a challenging number considering that only 23 Republicans sit in districts that went for Hillary Clinton last year. Moreover, some of those Republicans are proven vote getters with demonstrated political skills, including John Katko (NY), Barbara Comstock (VA), Erik Paulsen (MN), Pat Meehan (PA) and Jeff Denham (CA).

If many of those talented Republicans can retain their seats, and if GOP strategists can get Trump voters to turn out next year and vote Republican, the party will have a chance to keep the control of the House during the midterms. That’s not close to a sure thing, of course, but it’s possible.

That’s why the president’s poor job approval numbers are a giant headache for his party but they don’t yet guarantee the House will flip. Stay tuned.

Why Evangelicals Stick with Donald Trump & Roy Moore

Nobody should be surprised that evangelical voters are sticking with the GOP.

I’ve been watching evangelical voting behavior since I worked for Paul Weyrich’s Free Congress Foundation in the 1980s, and I’ve come to believe that, in most cases (though certainly not all), white evangelicals get their religion from their politics, not their politics from their religion.

That is, many evangelicals are first and foremost political conservatives drawn to a church (or a pastor) that confirms their worldviews and, in turn, their political views.

They gravitate to evangelical, fundamentalist and Pentecostal churches that are spread across the American landscape, particularly in rural and small-town America, because those churches hold views about the Bible and human behavior that are traditional rather than pragmatic. Not surprisingly, most of those church members are politically conservative, particularly on social/cultural issues but increasingly also on the role of government.

There are, to be sure, socially and economically liberal evangelicals, and they gravitate to progressive churches or to groups like the Sojourners, a social justice evangelical group that looks at the exact same scripture as Jerry Fallwell Jr. and Pat Robertson but emphasizes very different values and takes very different political positions.

While the Falwells and Roberstons focus primarily on abortion, same-sex marriage and transgender rights, Jim Wallis of the Sojourners focuses on the poor and those marginalized by society. All are “evangelicals,” but they have very different concerns and agendas.

Of course, the tendency to affiliate with religious institutions that are consistent with one’s political views and priorities isn’t limited to evangelicals. Most people of faith pick a religion, a denomination, a particular house of worship, a clergyman and a level of observance that is consistent with their world view – and therefore with their core political beliefs.

You aren’t going to find very many political conservatives in Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues, just as you aren’t going to find many extremely liberal Hasidic Jews or pragmatists who attend fundamentalist churches.

The Catholic divide isn’t as easy to see, but it exists, with the religious travels of Paul Weyrich a good example of divisions in the Catholic Church.

Weyrich, a leading figure in what was called the New Right and the person who probably was most responsible for bringing evangelicals and conservative Catholics together after decades (really centuries) of distrust, grew up in Wisconsin as a Roman Catholic. But after Vatican II, he switched to attend St. Gregory of Nyssa Byzantine Catholic Church in Washington, D.C.

Many Eastern Rite Catholic churches were more traditional than their Roman Catholic brethren, retaining time-honored liturgical rites and ancestral languages. Those elements fit Weyrich’s traditional religious orientation and his overall conservative instincts.

Then, one day during a sermon, a priest referenced the Vietnam War in a context that was critical of U.S. involvement. Weyrich and his family walked out of St. Gregory’s, eventually joining a Melkite (Greek) Catholic church that was even more traditional than the Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic church they had been attending.

Weyrich looked for a church in which he was comfortable, and that led him to more orthodox denominations, churches and clergy who followed traditions more closely and were not at the forefront of change.

Not everyone is as clear as Weyrich was in searching for a house of worship that reflected his values, principles, trappings and priorities. And certainly, some evangelicals, like former Bush speechwriter and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, have chosen to follow their moral imperatives rather than their partisan and ideological instincts.

But many religious denominations — or branches, in the case of Judaism — reflect a worldview that goes well beyond strictly religious views (such as, the divinity of Jesus or the observance of kashrut, for example).

They tend to be politically conservative or liberal, on social issues, foreign policy and even economic issues, depending on the denomination and the individual church or synagogue. (Again, there are plenty of exceptions, including my own synagogue, which tends to avoid matters of public policy except for Israel.)

For many white evangelicals, their religious and political views are so strongly intertwined that it is almost impossible to separate them. When their views of religion and morality collide with politics, politics often wins out. That’s why it’s naïve to ask why so many white evangelicals continue to support Donald Trump or Roy Moore.

Remember physician Scott DesJarlais (R-TN 4), the pro-life, tea party conservative first elected to Congress in 2010?

DesJarlais admitted pressuring his mistress to have an abortion and acknowledged he had multiple sexual relationships with patients and co-workers. His wife had two abortions. And yet, the Family Research Council, which promotes “traditional marriage and family and advocates for policies that uphold Judeo-Christian values” (according to the Almanac of American Politics, 2016), gave the congressman a 100% rating for 2014. Even more amazing, voters re-elected the Republican in 2012, 2014 and 2016.

The congressman’s hypocrisy is obvious, but no more so than the political behavior of his conservative, evangelical supporters.

If you have any doubt that white evangelicals are as much a political category as a religious one, you need only look at recent elections and exit polls.

In 2016, Donald Trump received the support of 80% of white evangelicals and born-again Christians, while Hillary Clinton drew just 16%. Clinton, on the other hand, won 60% of non-evangelicals. One year later, in the Virginia governor’s race. Republican Ed Gillespie carried 79% of white evangelicals, compared to Democrat Ralph Northam’s 19%. Northam carried a stunning 67% of Virginians who were not white evangelicals or born-agains.

Obviously, I have painted with a broad brush here. Religious institutions are changing all the time – witness Pope Francis’s priorities and comments. And the increasing partisan polarization we have witnessed surely is impacting how people evaluate the behavior and beliefs of others.

What does all of this mean for Roy Moore’s Senate race next month? Given their politics, I expect the overwhelming percentage of white evangelicals in Alabama to vote for Moore, so his prospects depend on turnout by establishment Republicans, Democratic voting groups and Republican women.

If Moore does win – and he is more likely than not to defeat Democrat Doug Jones – it will be because white evangelicals find his politics more important than his morality.

Are the Alabama & Tennessee Senate Races for Real?

Democratic strategists have been searching for ways to put a third GOP-held Senate seat – after Nevada and Arizona – into play in the hope of winning back the Senate next year. Now, some activists think Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker’s retirement and a special election in two months to fill Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Alabama open seat are providing surprising opportunities.

No, Nevada and Arizona are not sure bets as takeovers, and there are plenty of Democratic senators up next year who could lose their seats to a GOP challenger.

But putting a third Republican-held seat into play would at least give Democrats a theoretical chance of wresting control of the Senate away from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Donald Trump next year.

But veteran Democratic strategists remain cautious – and skeptical – about Alabama and Tennessee, worrying that a high profile national Democratic role in the contests would be self-defeating.

Past election results don’t offer much reason for Democratic optimism.

Trump won Alabama last year with 62.1% to 34.4% for Hillary Clinton, and he carried Tennessee 60.8% to her 34.7%. In other words, Trump’s margins in Tennessee (26.1%) and Alabama (27.7%) were both large.

Of course, it wasn’t that long ago that Alabama was solidly Democratic and Tennessee was politically competitive.

As late as Election Day 1994, both of Alabama’s sitting senators were Democrats. Howell Heflin was re-elected in 1990, while Richard Shelby was reelected in 1992. But the day after the 1994 elections, Shelby changed parties, and two years later Heflin retired. His seat was won, 53%-46%, by Sessions. Since then, no Democrat has drawn as much as 40% of the vote in an Alabama Senate race.

The last Democratic governor of Alabama was Don Siegelman, who was elected in 1998. He narrowly lost his bid for reelection four years later, and in 2006 he lost a bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

Bill Clinton and Al Gore carried Tennessee in 1992 and 1996, but then the bottom fell out for Democrats in presidential contests. Gore lost his home state by more than three points in 2000, and since then the Democratic percentage of the vote in the Volunteer State has shrunk every election.

But Tennessee has seen some competitive high profile general elections over the past decade or two.

Democrat Phil Bredesen was elected governor in 2002 and reelected in a landslide four years later. He carried every county in the state. And in the 2006 Tennessee Senate race, Democrat Harold Ford lost the open seat contest to Republican Bob Corker, who is retiring next year, by less than three points. Admittedly, 2006 was a terrible year for Democrats nationally.

The Democratic case for making either of these races competitive relies on two pillars: (1) Donald Trump and (2) what you might call the “crackpot factor.”  (For a thoughtful argument that the Alabama race is worth watching, see Zac McCrary’s and John Anzalone’s piece here.)

Midterm voting trends tend to favor the party not controlling the White House, and the President Trump’s unusual style and behavior could in some states be a considerable liability for Republican candidates. If Democrats have any chance in the South, it would be in year when a Republican president is embattled and voters are unhappy.

Alabama GOP Senate nominee Roy Moore’s views and his behavior while a judge on the Alabama Supreme Court – including his refusal to accept the legitimacy of United States Supreme Court decisions and his view that God’s Law overrides civil law – could turn off some more moderate and less partisan voters. That could boost the prospects of the Democratic nominee, former U.S. attorney Doug Jones.

If Jones can avoid the national Democratic label and keep the focus on Moore, argue some Democrats, Jones might actually have a path to victory.

In Tennessee, the Democratic scenario is based on the crowded Republican primary field producing a Senate nominee who is also at the extreme end of his or her party. If that happens, and if Democrats can find a credible nominee who can raise money and appeal to a broad swath of Tennessee voters, they could have a chance to win. (In the past, Tennessee has had a history of producing pragmatic nominees rather than anti-establishment bomb-throwers.)

In other words, the Democratic scenarios are mostly wishful thinking at this point. That could change, of course, and there are polls in Alabama that show a Moore-Jones race starts out surprisingly close in the single digits. (See here and here.)

But Trump’s national problems are not likely to be so serious in Alabama, where he is still popular and whites have deserted the Democratic Party.

Smart Democratic strategists are playing it very low-key in both the Alabama and Tennessee races. They will wait to see whether a strong candidate emerges in Tennessee and are conducting polling to see whether they have a serious path to victory in Alabama, but they understand how difficult both of those races are.

If Democratic groups jump in too early and commit major resources, they will essentially “nationalize” the two Senate races, which would undermine the party’s chances in both states. Whatever Alabama Republicans think of Moore and even Trump, they do not want to turn the Senate over to Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY).

While it is difficult to “sneak up” on an opponent these days because of the money and media attention that races can attract, Democratic insiders wisely believe that making either race a cause celebre for the national party or national Democratic figures will actually harm the party’s chances in the two campaigns.

As one Democrat told me, he had no desire to re-play the Georgia 6 special election, which became a partisan fight and was eventually won narrowly by the GOP nominee. “Getting close” in one or both of those races would not be good enough.

We’ll know soon whether Moore is so radioactive that he has turned a Republican landslide into a competitive race, and whether Democrats can find a formidable candidate in Tennessee. For now, the burden is on the Democrats to prove that either Senate race is really winnable.

At this point, both Alabama and Tennessee appear to be too Republican, too conservative and too pro-Trump to elect a Democrat to the Senate.