Doug Jones, weeks away from taking office as Alabama’s first Democratic senator since 1996, is not done talking about his win. On Wednesday, as national TV cameras rolled, he spent 26 minutes talking about his goals for 2018. On Thursday, he talked to the hosts of “Pod Save America” — a tastemaking podcast for liberals — about how he won. And on Sunday, he will be interviewed by Chris Wallace on Fox broadcast channel, and the show will be repeated later in the day on Fox News — a cable channel on which many Democrats refuse to appear.
So far, Jones has not made much news since his victory, ducking the Democratic fight over whether he should be seated in time to cast a vote on the GOP tax bill. (“We’ve still got a process in Alabama that we have to go though,” he said on “Pod Save America.”) He’s said more about how he won — as a “kitchen table” pragmatist and critic of Republican policy — and his hope that the South’s Republican dominance may start to crack.
“I believe we are on the road to having a competitive two-party state,” Jones said at Wednesday’s news conference.
Jones had been talking like that for months, though rarely before a national audience, and not in stump speeches. But as Republicans knew, and as they failed to exploit Tuesday, Jones did not run as a conservative and rarely took the Trump administration’s side on key issues. Most of Jones’s television ads, especially in the last month, portrayed the election as a choice between a Democrat who could “work with anybody” and a Republican who would engage in futile, embarrassing grandstanding.
In interviews, however, Jones often spoke of a different choice for Alabama — whether they wanted to send a new representative of the Deep South to the national stage. In an August interview with The Washington Post, before much national attention had driven toward his campaign, Jones said he would have theoretically opposed Jeff Sessions’s nomination for attorney general. He rattled off the reasons: Sessions was too harsh on voting rights and criminal-justice issues.
“Unfortunately, Sessions’s voice is what people think of when they think of the typical Southern politician,” Jones said. “And that’s not true at all. I want to have the bully pulpit to challenge those views in public all the time.”
Coverage of the race seemed to prove Jones right. Moore, who often led in polls, was compared to George Wallace — the Alabama governor who would, like his state, relish in rebellion. Moore, not Jones, frequently cited the state’s motto — “We dare defend our rights” — and his TV ads described how he faced down Washington’s elites to oppose same-sex marriage or public displays of religion.
Jones, by contrast, frequently said that Alabama could send a message by electing a Democrat who was willing to deal with anyone.
“I think it helps because so many of the divisions in this country started in the South,” Jones told the Economist in November. “It doesn’t matter what you talk about, politics or whatever. Many of the divisions started in the South decades and decades ago. So when you’ve got someone from the South trying to heal those and try to to bring people together, people take notice.”
Jones did not describe his agenda as progressive, and people who wanted that from their candidate noticed. In a post-election jeremiad in Counterpunch, journalist Paul Street attacked Jones for running an ad that told the story of two Civil War soldiers — one from Alabama, one from Maine — to make a point about togetherness. The ad, Street wrote, “matched Jones’s timid and centrist Blue Dog campaign, which was devoid of any remotely red-progressive meat in accord with majority U.S. public opinion in support of federally funded universal national health insurance, restored union organizing rights, a $15 an hour minimum wage, campaign finance reform, free child care, and a shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy.”
But Jones did not run as a Blue Dog, a term for the shrinking number of Democrats who identify as social and fiscal conservatives. He backed gay rights and opposed restrictions on abortion — the candor of one abortion answer, made on NBC’s “Meet the Press Daily,” made some Democrats worry he would blow the election. Asked by The Post and NBC News whether he would have voted in support of Neil M. Gorsuch for the Supreme Court, Jones dodged the question.
Instead, Jones ran against the Republican agenda in Congress, framing it as so extreme that a Democrat needed to head to Washington to offeset it.
“People started looking at these proposals, and these health-care bills that were coming out that were strictly repeal and replace,” Jones told “Pod Save America” this week. “And the replacements simply weren’t sitting well with folks. It seemed to be a political score instead of a score for the people.”
Similarly, Jones opposed the Republican tax bill, telling audiences that he could favor corporate tax cuts but not the various giveaways that had made it into the Republicans-only package.
Few Democrats think Jones could have won his race had Moore not been credibly accused of sexual misconduct. But many Democrats also thought that the politician who could break the party’s Southern losing streak would run from the center left. In 2018, Alabama Democrats are newly optimistic about winning more statewide races and shaving the GOP’s supermajority — many of their candidates will run to Jones’s right.
Practically, Jones sees an opening for all of them. One reason, which often got lost in the tumult of the race’s final weeks, was the self-inflicted blunders that had led to there being an election at all. Gov. Robert Bentley (R) had resigned in disgrace after a sex scandal. Gov. Kay Ivey (R), his replacement, moved up a special election in which strong majorities of Alabamians rejected Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.), who had been irreversibly damaged for being picked by Bentley to replace Sessions. To Jones, the Democrats, locked out of power, could run in 2018 as the party of reform.
“It’s a fragile coalition,” Jones said. “I recognize that. I also think that this state is moving in a direction where people are putting certain divisive issues behind us.”