By Glynn Wilson –
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Democrats in bars and coffee shops around the nation’s capital and across Alabama are asking each other an implausible question: Is 2017 the year a Democrat might get elected to the U.S. Senate from the conservative state?
The 63-year-old former federal prosecutor Doug Jones, who jailed a couple of Klansmen a few years back in the Birmingham church bombing case, has thrown his hat into the ring and won the primary with 65 percent of the vote.
“Around here, he’s a folk hero,” retired Auburn history professor Wayne Flynt said in an interview.
“I think he’s got a chance,” Flynt said. “That’s the news.”
The national media, with few staff who have ever set foot in the Heart of Dixie, does not seem to think so. But of course they totally blew the 2016 election prediction game, so why should we listen to them now?
POLITICO says Democrats are snubbing their Alabama Senate candidate, even though “Doug Jones would seem to be a perfect candidate for the post-Charlottesville moment.”
“He’s cash-poor, outgunned and flying under the radar,” they say about the Democrat running in the state special election for Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ old Senate seat, now occupied by the opportunistic Luther Strange, who will pretty much fly any flag on a given day to advance his political ambitions, Flynt said. He is the big money candidate in this race who just might lose, even with the support of President Donald Trump and the deep pockets of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. It has happened in other recent races, going back to Paul Wellstone in Minnesota.
So the question for Flynt and other experts is: Can Jones win? Does he have a chance to be the first Democrat from Alabama in the Senate since Howell Heflin? Can he get all the democratic constituencies together to bolster the turnout in December and bring in independents and the mainstream business crowd to stop Judge Roy Moore, who looks likely to win the Republican runoff in September?
So for all those Democrats in Alabama trying to figure out what to do, and all those political money insiders in Washington who seem so interested in the race, here’s the answer.
John Eves, the retired leader of the United Association pipefitter’s union in Birmingham, has been following the race closely on the ground.
“He’s a viable candidate,” Eves said. “I’ve never been more excited about a race than this one. These Democrats are fired up.”
He thinks Moore will win the primary, potentially ending the short and weird political career of Luther Strange. The primary already made Trip Pittman toast.
“Big Luther needs to go away,” he said. “I admire Judge Roy Moore for his faith. But he needs to be out there doing tent revivals and leave the law of the land to others. He sometimes insults my faith. He’s a showboat.”
According to the Washington Post, Moore doesn’t even know what the Dreamer program is, perhaps a plus for Luther Strange.
Professor Flynt says if voter turnout is 18 percent of registered voters or more in the runoff September 26, that would favor Strange. Total voter turnout in the primary August 15 was 18 percent, but that included Democrats. If it falls below 15 percent, he said, Judge Roy Moore wins.
“Luther Strange is the kind of pragmatic, opportunistic politician people despise down here these days,” he said. “His base is not as enthusiastic as Moore’s.”
One-third of the people in Alabama are all for a state church, he said — “and they vote.”
Are they enough to carry a general election against a well-known mainstream Democrat?
“Probably not,” Flynt said.
“There is anxiety in many circles,” he said.
People are concerned about the deal between Luther Strange and Robert Bentley to delay the investigation that ultimately cost the governor his job. In the business community, and even among normal, average working class families, small farmers and other groups, Moore is seen as a radical showboat only out for his own religious interests, and his personal fame. Even some of the Baptists, a major voting bloc, are split on that question, according to personal interviews.
“He’s an embarrassment to the state’s image, reinforcing all the old stereotypes,” Flynt said, a Baptist himself who says the denomination shifted to the political right after they stopped conducting training school on Sunday nights in the 1970s. The Baptists were early supporters of the separation of church and state. Not anymore.
POLITICO seemed to knock Jones for not making this race all about Trump, as other Democrats have done in Georgia and other states. But they all came in second.
A Gallup public opinion survey in July showed only 40 percent of voters approve of Trump, compared to 54 percent who disapprove. Those numbers may be upside down in Alabama, with 55 percent of the state’s voters saying they approve of Trump, while only 39 percent disapprove, so why jump into that swamp?
“This election should not be about Donald Trump,” Doug Jones said in an interview. “He is popular in a lot of places, but he is also widely unpopular [among some] people that are going to vote.”
Flynt said Jones is using the right strategy.
“Leave Trump alone,” he said.
He pointed out that many experts thought Judge Bob Vance could have beaten Judge Roy Moore in the 2012 Supreme Court race, had he not started so late.
“If he had launched that campaign a week sooner he would have won,” Flynt said.
Jones has some time, but not that much. He will be out campaigning on Labor Day in Muscle Shoals and Birmingham.
POLITICO described him as skating “under the national radar, remembering the searing scrutiny and barrage of national Republican money that landed on (Georgia Democrat) Ossoff earlier this year.”
“Jones is looking more closely at the model of Archie Parnell, the little-noticed South Carolina Democrat who came surprisingly close to winning a congressional seat in June by organizing heavily but flying under the GOP radar,” POLITICO reports.
”Jones’ campaign is working to introduce him to the state’s broader electorate by focusing on his biography rather than aiming to muscle into the national political bloodstream with splashy pronouncements or fundraising asks,” according to Joe Trippi, his strategist.
“We’re not going to be running to Washington, D.C. to ask how we run our campaign,” Jones said.
The question is, how to strike a balance that gets you in the news in positive ways on a daily basis without looking like a crazy man on Twitter, as Trump did to many average Americans and mainstream segments of society, including lawyers, doctors, scientists and teachers?
“National Democrats in Washington have discussed the best ways to get involved with the Alabama race in a series of Capitol Hill meetings, but for now they’ve decided to wait until the Republican run-off ends, believing a race against the more controversial Moore might give them a chance to swoop in helpfully,” POLITICO reports from a “handful” of sources.
One interesting development that could roil the race is where Alabama Power stands, perhaps the most powerful force in Alabama politics. With an alleged Democrat in charge these days, the company management just pulled the plug on the conservative Business Council of Alabama, refusing to fund or participate in the summer conference in Point Clear, publicly criticizing leader Bill Canary. There were sharp disagreements on state legislative strategy this past year.
The last Democratic Governor, Don Siegelman, was a critic and often opposed Alabama power on environmental issues as he came up in the ranks in the party and state government. But in 1998, when he won the governor’s race, it was Alabama Power that funded and organized his inauguration.
© 2017, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.