Fighting an Uphill Senate Re-election Battle, Doug Jones Does It His Way

    WASHINGTON — Politically endangered lawmakers about to face voters often find themselves tempering their instincts, breaking with their parties on tough votes to prove independence and placate constituents, and offering mealy-mouthed platitudes on the most divisive topics of the day.

    Not Senator Doug Jones, Democrat of Alabama, considered his party’s most endangered incumbent facing re-election next week.

    His first television advertisements of the year featured him using stark, stirring language to talk about the death of George Floyd, a Black man, in police custody and promote mask wearing. He voted to impeach President Trump and declared on the Senate floor that “Black lives matter.” He has blasted as “shameful” Alabama’s law criminalizing abortion in almost all cases, and suggested raising the age requirement to purchase a gun from 18 to 21.

    And on Monday night, just over a week before Election Day, he joined the rest of his party in voting against Mr. Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Judge Amy Coney Barrett.

    “These are all things a lot of people felt like wouldn’t be politically expedient for him,” said Chris England, the chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party. “I don’t think that’s necessarily something he concerns himself with.”

    The odds that voters will return Mr. Jones to Washington and reject his Republican opponent, Tommy Tuberville, a former Auburn University football coach who has pledged fealty to Mr. Trump, are even more unlikely than those he beat in 2017, when he jolted the political establishment with an unexpected victory over Roy S. Moore, who was accused of sexually assaulting and pursuing teenage girls.

    But instead of tiptoeing around the Senate as so many politically embattled lawmakers past and present have done, skittering away from reporters when asked about hot-button issues or giving tortured explanations of tricky votes, Mr. Jones has appeared almost liberated by his predicament.

    In an interview, Mr. Jones insisted that he was posed to beat the odds again in his deeply conservative state. But if he is facing his final curtain in the Senate, he is determined to do it his way.

    He did not meet with Judge Barrett to discuss her nomination, even as some of his Democratic colleagues did. He unloaded in an interview with local reporters on the push to confirm a nominee before the election, calling it a “political power grab” that he refused to “have any part of,” and rebuking Senate Republicans for prioritizing it over other business.

    Some of his most striking political choices came after Mr. Floyd’s death and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, a topic many moderate Democrats have gone through contortions to avoid.

    “Somebody’s got to speak out,” Mr. Jones said of his decision to publicly address the movement. “And if you base the calculation only on whether it will win you an election, then you will never, ever do it.”

    “That’s the problem that I’ve seen with so many Democrats from the South: The calculation was based not on helping the state or the country, but whether or not it helps the particular election,” he continued. “This is a much bigger issue than one Senate election in the state of Alabama.”

    Even before he was elected, Mr. Jones straddled the demands of party loyalty and reaching across the political aisle. But on some issues, he has stepped out squarely on his own.

    Best known for prosecuting two Ku Klux Klansmen responsible for the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, Mr. Jones has long been preoccupied with the gap between how things are and how they should be. Born and raised in segregated Birmingham, where his grandfather displayed a figurine of Eugene (Bull) Connor, the police commissioner who used dogs and fire hoses to break up civil rights demonstrations, he is acutely conscious of the symbolic power of elected officials’ bully pulpit.

    From the Senate floor, he called the video of Mr. Floyd in police custody an “image of a society and a culture that keeps a knee on the necks of Black Americans through systemic racism and discrimination.”

    “I feel like it’s part of my responsibility to try to give people opposing views and to try to help give them as much information as I can that will help educate them for now and into the future. That’s pretty difficult in a partisan world,” Mr. Jones said. “If I don’t say the things that I’m saying, we’re just going to stay stuck in the past. And we’ve got to move forward.”

    Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

    In 2017, Mr. Jones cast himself as a figure of conciliation, and now on the campaign trail, he boasts of the legislation he has sponsored with Republicans and takes pains to note that he votes with Senator Richard Shelby, Republican of Alabama, as often as he votes with Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader. He kicked off his re-election around the idea of “One Alabama,” pledging not to run a campaign that was “us versus them or good versus evil.”

    But public polling has shown Mr. Jones trailing Mr. Tuberville, who has kept a low profile on the campaign trail, in the low double digits. And while he is outrunning former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic presidential nominee, Mr. Jones would need a significant number of Republicans to split their tickets in a state where Mr. Trump won by 28 points in 2016.

    “Alabama remains a deeply Republican state,” said David Hughes, a professor of political science and pollster at Auburn University at Montgomery. “While Doug Jones has done a really good job positioning himself to outperform those traditional expectations, there’s still a really steep hill to climb to get over the hill as the winner.”

    His grim re-election chances, paired with his close relationship with Mr. Biden, have fueled speculation that he could be tapped as attorney general if the Democratic presidential nominee defeats Mr. Trump. At a recent rally in Leeds, he recounted to voters how Mr. Biden, who virtually addressed the crowd, called him late one night in 2017 to encourage him to run for Senate.

    “He said, ‘Doug, you have got an opportunity,’” Mr. Jones recalled. “‘You have an opportunity with your background, with your history, with your compassion, with trying to help people. You’ve got an opportunity to redeem the soul of Alabama.’”

    But Mr. Jones, for now, is firm that the only perch in Washington he is interested in is the Senate.

    “I know Joe Biden wants me in the United States Senate, which is where I want to be,” Mr. Jones said in an interview. “He needs people like me in the United States Senate, and he needs a voice that not only has been his friend for a long, long time, but somebody that he knows can reach across the aisle.”

    Almost as an afterthought, he added, “That’s the answer to that right now.”


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