As a pure political spectacle, Alabama’s 2020 U.S. Senate election seems hopelessly outmatched by its predecessor in 2017.
Drama, sexual accusations and celebrities dominated the stage in 2017 when Roy Moore routed his Republican rivals, then tangled with Democrat Doug Jones. The contest captivated cable news networks, won international attention and perhaps mystified the president, who struck out twice with his endorsements.
This year’s sequel, by comparison, has the trappings of a snoozer. Sparks have yet to ignite although the GOP primary is just two months away and the stakes are very high: The GOP winner will go head to head with a senator — Jones — whom national pundits dub as the chamber’s most vulnerable incumbent.
Political insiders, who predict that President Donald Trump will stick to the sidelines during the primary, also say that things could quickly ignite if the Republican race heads to runoff as most anticipate.
Such a scenario could benefit Jones, who is pursuing re-election in a state that, in the present era, rarely elects Democrats to jobs of statewide consequence.
“What Jones needs is a highly competitive and bitter Republican runoff,” said Jess Brown, a retired political science professor at Athens State University and a longtime observer of state politics. “It has to be bitterly contested with name calling and dirty ads.”
Jones is himself an observer at the moment, sitting back and watching the Republican campaigning unfold ahead of the March 3 primary. A runoff would take place on March 31, if no one candidate received over 50% of the vote.
“What we’re seeing is a Republican Party that is trying to divide people,” said Jones, during an interview with AL.com on Monday. “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.”
Indeed, there are few issues being debated among Republican candidates outside who is a bigger supporter of a president. That shouldn’t be surprising to those who follow polling: Trump, according to Morning Consult’s latest survey, enjoys the backing of 59% of voters in Alabama. That is only a slight decrease from January 2017, when Trump first took office.
The Republican field has not yet scheduled any formal debates prior to the March 3 primary, although some are in the planning stages. AL.com is working with WBRC-TV and its Gray Television partners throughout the state to partner for a debate ahead of the GOP contest.
Among the candidates, U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne has the been the most notable pot-stirrer, criticizing former U.S. Attorney General and Sen. Jeff Sessions for what he says was Sessions’ role in antagonizing President Donald Trump by staying hands-off the Russia probe.
Byrne, ahead of the holidays, said Sessions’ late entry into the race is actually a boost for Jones.
“Jeff has hurt the Republican chances to take the seat back,” said Byrne. “If the president doesn’t say another word, some outside group funded by the Democrats will run ads during the general election to get people who normally would be Republican voters to not vote at all in the Senate race. That is the great hope for Doug Jones.”
The Sessions campaign offered no direct response to that Byrne claim. But it called on Byrne to “stop slinging mud” after the congressman suggested that Sessions believes he “owns” the Senate seat.
The primary is unfolding into what observers believe is a three-way race: Sessions vs. Byrne vs. former Auburn University head football coach Tommy Tuberville. Also seeking the nomination are Moore, state Rep. Arnold Mooney, businessman Stanley Adair and activist Ruth Page Nelson.
So who’s winning? Most political observers put Sessions in a runoff, but are split on whether his opponent is Byrne or Tuberville.
Moore’s candidacy is something of a wild card, they say: The former state chief justice won a loyal network of followers during his past political crusades who have proved to be a reliable voting block for him.
Brown said he believes Sessions will be difficult to defeat after receiving a very public endorsement from Republican Sen. Richard Shelby and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“Sessions is the known commodity,” said Brown. “And so far, Sessions is being pretty effective with this idea that ‘I was the effective voice in Washington for the Trump agenda before Trump ran for president’ and that ‘I’m not some Johnny-come-lately Trumpster.’”
“I think it is Sessions’ race to lose,” said Robert Blanton III, professor and chairman of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “Given his name recognition, I don’t see either Tuberville or Byrne being able to make a compelling case as to why Republican voters should choose either of them over a ‘known commodity’ such as Sessions.”
Brown said the real fight should exist between Tuberville and Byrne. He said both have been “gentle” on one another by choosing to instead to go after Sessions.
Tuberville, a political novice, has labeled Byrne and Sessions as “career politicians” who have “proven they can’t get it done in Washington, D.C.,” and has tried to position himself as the outsider candidate similar to Trump ahead of the president’s 2016 win.
Tuberville’s campaign believes the action is just getting started, and anticipates “outside money” soon flowing in.
“We’re under no illusion about the amount of outside money that will pour into Alabama and make this race a focal point of the entire nation,” said Jordan Doufexis, digital communications director for the Tuberville camp. “Luckily, Alabama voters hate to be told how to vote and how to vote and who to vote for.”
The other candidates are also active on the campaign trail. The Mooney campaign is touting the state lawmaker’s 40 years of experience in business and his past five years serving his constituents in Montgomery.
“He is the only true conservative candidate in the race for U.S. Senate and we are confident that once the voters get to know Arnold Mooney, it will be clear that he is the real conservative who can beat Doug Jones,’ said campaign manager Blake delCarmen.
Adair said that Sessions isn’t entitled to the Senate and said he’s “had his opportunity.”
“The time is now for Alabama to move forward and not repeat the errors of the past,” Adair said.
Nelson, an activist in Dothan, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Polling is inconclusive, at this point. The Sessions campaign released an internal poll last month that showed him leading by 23 percentage points ahead of his next closest GOP rival. The Alabama Farmers Federation, in a poll also conducted last month, showed Sessions and Tuberville in a statistical dead heat. The federation’s political action committee, FarmPAC, endorsed Tuberville in September and remained committed to him after Sessions entered the race.
The most recent independent poll came from JMC Analytics of Baton Rouge, but that didn’t include any head-to-head analysis of the GOP primary candidates.
Instead, the JMC poll placed Jones in hypothetical matchups against five Republicans – Byrne, Tuberville, Sessions, Moore and Money. In those matchups, Jones trails Sessions, Byrne, and Tuberville but leads Moore and Mooney.
The survey consisted of 525 responses between Dec. 16-18, and showed that 48% of those polled believed that Jones should not be re-elected, while 34% supported his re-election. Of those polled, 54% backed Trump’s re-election, while 42% did not.
Criticism toward the poll has been sharp. Jones and Democratic pollster Zac McCrary of Montgomery have pointed to a past JMC poll released on Nov. 29, 2017, which had Moore leading Jones by 5 percentage points. Jones wound up winning the election by less than 2 percentage points.
Moore’s wife, Kayla, blasted the poll as “clearly false polling” driven by the “Washington, D.C establishment intent on beating Judge Roy Moore.”
Kayla Moore did, however, point to a part of the JMC polling which showed her husband performing better with black voters in one-on-one contests against Jones than the other Republican candidates. Black voters, in 2017, overwhelmingly backed Jones over Moore and were a key constituency in leading to the Moore’s defeat.
“Judge Moore performs best with black voters among ‘all’ Alabama Republican Senate candidates in head-to-head matchups with Doug Jones,” said Kayla Moore. “The people of Alabama will not be fooled again.”
JMC Analytics was the first firm to release a poll showing Jones leading Moore during the 2017 contest. That poll occurred on Nov. 11, 2017, and had Jones up by 4 percentage points.
John Coulvillon, founder of JMC Analytics, said the latter 2017 poll underestimated the impact that black voters would have in helping Jones win the general election by less than 2 percentage points. But he defended his polling – “the Jones-Moore numbers were flipping back and forth during the election season” – which was in line with other polls predicting a Moore victory days before the Dec. 12, 2017 contest.
Coulvillon also said that JMC rightly predicted the Moore victory during that year’s GOP primary.
Coulvillon said his poll shows that Jones is “the underdog given Alabama’s conservative leanings” and that he’s “consistently polling around 40% against opponents “not named Roy Moore.”
“I’m of the opinion that while it’s not a hopeless situation for Senator Jones, what does make his life tougher is that you have a Senate contest occurring at the same time as the presidential race and therefore you have a much more potential for a straight party-line vote,” said Coulvillon. “You don’t have split ticket voting as you used to.”
Beating the odds
Indeed, straight-line party voting could come into play for the general election and is a looming concern for Jones, according to David Hughes, a political science professor at Auburn University in Montgomery.
“In my opinion, there’s a very strong likelihood that Jones loses,” said Hughes. “Furthermore, I’m afraid there’s just not much he can do about it.”
Hughes is anticipating a high turnout in November, of around 75% of registered voters with 65% opting to vote straight-party ticket. Alabama is one of seven states that will allow straight-party voting during the 2020 election, which means a voter can choose a political party’s entire slate of candidates with just a single ballot mark.
“This means that, right out of the gate, a generic Republican candidate can expect 39% of the vote to come from straight-ticket voting alone compared to only 26% straight-ticketing for Jones,” said Hughes. “Assuming a candidate needs 50% of the vote to win, Jones would need to win 60% of the vote among those splitting their tickets. This is, to put mildly, unlikely.”
According to Hughes, Jones needs Republicans to abstain from voting or to proceed with a write-in vote. In 2017, the 22,819 write-in votes – largely encouraged by Shelby at the time — helped make up the difference for the Jones victory over Moore.
“The only way this happens is if Republicans nominate a vastly unpopular candidate (i.e. Roy Moore),” Hughes said. “But even if they do, with turnout guaranteed to be higher than in 2017, the odds that Jones could beat Roy Moore aren’t as good as they were in 2017.”
Jones isn’t subscribing what the prognosticators are selling. He told AL.com that he believes his campaign is in a “great place” and “exactly where we want to be” with having a “great amount of (legislative) success in the past two years and in the last couple of months.”
Early on the campaign, Jones appears to be sticking with the same “kitchen tables” campaign strategy that he had in 2017, by maintaining an issue-focused approach. For instance, he continues to tout last month’s legislative repeal of the Military Widow’s Tax that affects approximately 2,000 surviving military spouses in Alabama and helps them gain access to their full Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs survivor benefits.
Said Jones, “I am doing the things I said I would do when I ran (in 2017) and I am making sure that the people of Alabama know that regardless of what goes on nationally, that I have their backs. I’m there for the people of Alabama. I’m not necessarily there for a political party or a president, per se, but I’ve worked across the aisle.”
McCrary, the Democratic pollster, said he believes Jones is also benefiting from the “power of incumbency” in both fundraising and by not having to campaign during the primary.
“I do think there are a lot more questions on the Republican side at this point and it will be the case for the next several months,” he said. “It’s premature to judge too much until we see more out of the Republican side.”
Jones, as of Sept. 30, has a $5 million nest egg to support his re-election efforts, which is considerably more than any of the Republicans competing in the race. Byrne, as of Sept. 30, was the closest to Jones with $2.5 million cash on hand, and has raised over $3 million since entering the race almost a year ago, while Tuberville has generated $1.8 million. Sessions entered the race in ahead of Alabama’s Nov. 8 filing deadline with approximately $2.5 million cash available.
Fundraising data for the fourth quarter isn’t expected to be released until the end of the month, though some campaigns could release their fundraising totals early.
But money might not matter much if the partisan realities in Alabama come to the fore. Before Jones pulled off the upset in 2017, no Democrat had been elected to the U.S. Senate since 1992. And that Democrat – Shelby – switched political parties to Republican two years later.
Terry Lathan, chairwoman of the Alabama Republican Party, hasn’t made it a secret that her focus is on defeating Jones. In repeated comments about the status of the race, Lathan has said that defeating Jones is “front and center” of the state GOP’s focus.
She, like other Republicans including Sessions, say that Jones repeatedly votes “against the will of the majority of Alabamians.”
Lathan dismisses the 2017 contest as an anomaly because “650,000 Republicans did not vote.” She accurately points out to the 2018 state elections in which Alabama Republicans dominated at the ballot box, sweeping all statewide constitutional contests.
“We expect a massive GOP turnout with President Trump and the U.S. Senate race on the ballot,” said Lathan.
Brown said for Jones, key voters remain and how he handles them will likely become campaign fodder. Chief among them is how Jones will vote during Trump’s looming impeachment trial in the Senate.
Sessions, whose campaign strategy appears to be focused on Jones, is firing away. In a news release Friday, the Sessions campaign accused Jones of supporting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to “withhold the articles of impeachment from the U.S. Senate.” The news release accused Jones of being “openly on the Democratic impeachment team,” is standing “directly against the wishes” of Alabama residents by showing loyalty to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and is a “foot soldier” for a team “dedicated to a leftist, socialistic future for this country.”
Jones, in his comments to AL.com, called Sessions an “ideologue.” He said that he never supported a withholding the articles of impeachment. He did say that he backed Pelosi’s efforts to ask McConnell to sit down and establish the rules going forward before sending the articles over to the Senate.
“He’s been the one refusing to even discuss what the rules of our trial would be,” said Jones, who is advocating for a “fair and complete trial.”
Jones added, “No one else in that Republican primary is interested in that. They are not interested in hearing the evidence. They are afraid of what the evidence will be. I want the American public to know the full and complete set of facts and apparently those on the other side (do not) want that.”
This story was updated at 10:32 a.m. at Jan. 8, 2020, to include an update that AL.com is working with WBRC-TV and its Gray Television partners in Alabama to partner on a GOP debate ahead of the March 3 primary.