Moore’s Opponent Tries to Rev Up Democrats in Alabama Senate RaceBy
Black voters, moderate Republicans seen as key to Jones
Republican Moore retains solid base of support in state
Veronica Grinds has noticed a change in Alabama’s political atmosphere.
“Compared to past elections it’s just a different energy,” the 52-year-old nurse from Montgomery said after a rally for Democratic Senate candidate Doug Jones Saturday at Alabama State University, a historically black college in Montgomery. “The other day I had four messages when I got off work and they were all from Doug Jones.”
If Jones has any shot at becoming the first Democratic senator from Alabama in a generation after next Tuesday’s special election, the enthusiasm of black voters like Grinds is essential. He’s also trying to gain support from Republican white voters who disapprove of the GOP nominee, Roy Moore.
Jones, a former federal prosecutor best known for prosecuting two of the KKK members in the 1969 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, has been holding events at black churches and historically black colleges and universities and sitting for interviews with black radio and TV outlets, according to his campaign.
Representative Terri Sewell, Alabama’s lone Democratic representative in Congress, has drafted prominent black politicians, including New Jersey Senator Cory Booker former Massachusetts Democratic Governor Deval Patrick, to campaign with Jones in the final weekend before the election. Representative John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat is who a hero of the civil rights movement, also has been in Alabama.
“We are all energized because so much is at stake,” Sewell said after the ASU rally. “This is about having an opportunity to hold on to and expand Medicaid, this is an opportunity to not have this tax reform bill pass and I just think that people understand what’s at stake.”
The Jones campaign is also targeting white voters, specifically moderate Republicans, in a state where the GOP is dominant. While black voters are the core of the Democratic base, Alabama’s voting age population is about 27 percent black and 69 percent white, according to 2014 Census data.
“If black voters make up about 25% of the electorate and Jones wins at least 90% of them, that would mean that Jones would probably have to win at least one-third of the white vote to have a chance of winning,” wrote Geoffrey Skelley, an analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, in an analysis of the Alabama race.
Alabama hasn’t sent a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1992, but Moore, a former state supreme court chief justice, has provided an opening. Moore entered the race as a controversial figure -- he was twice ousted from the Alabama supreme court. But in November the Washington Post published the accounts of four women who said Moore pursued them for dates and other encounters decades ago when they were teenagers and Moore was in his 30s. One of them was 14 at the time. Another woman has come forward to accuse Moore of sexually assaulting her when she was 16. Moore has denied the accusations.
Despite the allegations, and denunciations from Alabama’s senior senator, Richard Shelby, and other Republican lawmakers, Moore and Jones are neck-and-neck in polls in the heavily Republican state. Moore has both the solid support of evangelicals and President Donald Trump, who won the state last November with 62 percent of the vote. Trump on Friday night held a rally just over the Florida border with Alabama and gave his full support to Moore.
Some Jones allies are questioning whether the surge of outreach has been enough. The state’s NAACP chapter hasn’t endorsed either candidate but has been calling and canvassing in predominantly black neighborhoods in Birmingham, Macon, and Mobile. Benard Simelton, head of the chapter, said Jones has done a good job of reaching African American voters on issues like health care, education and the criminal justice reform, but he expressed concern about whether he’s generated enough enthusiasm.
“It’s not that they don’t have it, but we’ve got to get to a much higher level than what we have been,” he said.
John Zippert, head of the Alabama New South Coalition, said the group has been canvassing and making phone calls, but also showing up in places where their signs would be seen, such as major intersections in cities like Selma and at big football games. But he said he wished they’d received more support from the Jones campaign.
“They probably could have coordinated things better, but we decided from the beginning that this was so important to black people in this state that we were going to wage our vote or die turnout effort regardless,” he said.
Jones and his campaign said they are focusing on all voters.
“This is not just a question about African American voters, this election is about everybody in the state,” Jones told reporters after an event in Selma. “So while we are reaching out to the African American community in Selma and elsewhere, we’re reaching out with the same messages to everyone else.”
Joe Trippi, a senior adviser for the Jones campaign, said their winning coalition includes everybody. “We’ve got to get Republicans to vote for us, independents, African American turnout, across the board,” he said.
The attempt to court Republicans is evident in some broadcast ads from the Jones campaign. Jones said he won’t be beholden to either Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer or Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, neither of whom is popular in Alabama. He also emphasizes his Christian faith and love of guns. “If you saw the number of guns I own you’d know I’m a strong supporter of the Second Amendment,” Jones says in a radio ad.
At his campaign’s final “Women Wednesdays” event in Cullman this week, Jones shared the stage with former Alabama First Lady Marsha Folsom, equal pay advocate Lilly Ledbetter and his wife, Louise. Jones talked about the need to protect rural hospitals by accepting the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion and praised former Alabama Governor Jim Folsom Jr. for drawing Mercedes Benz to the state in 1994.
“Does anybody in this room think that Mercedes Benz would have come to Alabama if Roy Moore had been sitting on the other side of the table?” Jones said. “Absolutely not.”
But he also talked about Alabama being at a moral crossroads on women’s equality, a point he made in a speech Tuesday. While he initially held back on attacking Moore over the sexual misconduct allegations, Jones has framed Tuesday’s vote as moment for Alabama to choose a side of history.
“Alabama, this is our time to say that we are part of that movement. We’re not going to lag behind like we did so many other social movements in this country,” he said Thursday.
Grinds said she found out about the Jones rally after getting a call from his campaign. She said it was the first politically rally she attended. The issues the Jones campaign has focused on, such as preserving Obamacare, resonated with her, she said.
“The people I’ve talked to -- family members, coworkers and everything -- they’re just really excited” to go to the polls, she said.
For many of Jones’s voters, Tuesday’s election is about voting for issues like health care and education.
“Let’s put him aside,” Juanda Maxwell, a 59-year-old business owner from Selma, said of Moore. “Vote for those things that will help make your life better.”
Maxwell attended a Jones event at her church, the Brown Chapel AME Church located less than a mile from the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where in 1965 civil rights protesters were set upon by police, one of the seminal events of the era.
“I think of this kind of as ground zero, we gave you the Voting Rights Act in 1965,” she said. “We don’t always do what we should do, and our hope and our goal is that the community will hear it and heed it, and go out and vote.”