AUBURN, Ala. — Doug Jones looked up at his audience in a fluorescent-lit university lecture hall and declared that the choice for Senate between him and Republican Roy Moore in an upcoming special election couldn’t be clearer.
Moore, the controversial ex-judge, has said that “homosexual conduct should be illegal” and Muslims should not serve in Congress. He would continue the “divisive” and “hateful” rhetoric that has been present in Alabama and inject “chaos into chaos” in Washington, Jones said.
Jones claims ties to both parties but no blind loyalty to either. A mild-mannered ex-prosecutor, he noted that he was nominated for U.S. attorney by a Democratic president but confirmed by a Republican-led Senate. He also highlighted his recent meetings with labor heads and business leaders.
“People are going to look back at this race and say Alabama made a choice,” Jones said.
At the same appearance one evening late last month, a young man asked Jones why moderate Republicans such as his parents should cross party lines and support a Democrat like him. Another man took issue with his support for abortion rights. A third told the story of a Republican friend who didn’t like Jones campaigning with a “national” Democrat — former vice president Joe Biden.
In an unexpectedly competitive Senate race that both national parties are watching closely, Jones is trying to pull off a challenging and at times conflicting two-step. In a state where Democrats make up less than a third of the electorate, Jones must turn out as many of them as he can — and win over enough Republican voters, too.
The result has been a strategy that includes criticizing Moore, casting himself as a pragmatist and making a direct appeal to the Democratic base by embracing some liberal positions — and touting his role prosecuting two Ku Klux Klan members who bombed a black church in Birmingham in 1963, killing four girls.
It has also involved a lot of sidestepping.
Would Jones support Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) as Senate minority leader?
“I’m going to make a judgment once I’m there,” he said in an interview.
Does he want to campaign with former president Barack Obama? He wouldn’t say.
Jones was also careful around the topic of President Trump, who won Alabama by more than 28 percentage points. In the interview, he ducked questions about how good or bad a job the president is doing.
“It doesn’t really matter what my view is,” he said. “My view is going to be taking every issue step by step, because he is the president.”
The Dec. 12 special election for the seat once held by now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions will mark the first general Senate election of Trump’s term. At a moment of intensifying partisan rancor, it will test the public’s appetite in the heart of Trump country: Do the voters of Alabama want a bridge-builder in Congress or a rabble-rouser in the president’s mold?
The outcome will also affect business in Washington, where Senate Republicans’ slim advantage, 52 to 48, has presented governing challenges this year.
Moore is a hard-right culture warrior who has attracted nationwide attention for being removed twice from the bench — once for refusing to heed a court order to remove a Ten Commandments display from his courthouse and a second time, after he was again elected chief judge, for refusing to follow a Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage.
The Republican has declared a take-no-prisoners battle against his political opponents in both parties. Moore spokesman Brett Doster said Jones has “declared war on the Constitution, the military, and the unborn.”
Jones, who was a U.S. attorney during President Bill Clinton’s second term, has made his role in the church bombing case a central feature of his campaign — a strategy that analysts say is designed to drive up African American participation on Election Day.
Jones has called the Birmingham church bombing case the “crowning moment” of his career.
He has also shown a willingness to denounce, if gently, Trump’s comments on the deadly violence at a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, which Jones said “disappointed” him.
“We’ve got to denounce the neo-Nazis. We’ve got to denounce the white supremacists,” he said.
William Stewart, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alabama, said a Democrat can still win in Alabama, but “he has to get a very large black vote and he needs to get a substantial number of white, more liberally inclined people to vote for him.”
Stewart said that will be difficult with Senate control in the balance, which probably will prompt many Republicans to vote for Moore even if they don’t like his social views.
“I think they will realize that if the Republicans lose the Senate, then they cannot expect the Supreme Court” or other courts to be filled with conservative judges, he said.
Much of Jones’s pitch for why he should be elected is rooted in what he says is an urgent need for “common ground” in politics. At the Auburn appearance, he said he would not merely be a “lap dog for a particular agenda” or “another Democratic vote.”
“This country is beginning to see such divisiveness,” the 63-year-old drawled. He blamed “not just the Republicans” but fellow Democrats.
There has been skepticism about his middle-of-the-road platform.
“We all obviously know what Moore is about,” said a young man who asked the first question at the Auburn event. He wanted to know why his parents, both “moderate Republicans,” should break from the GOP this time.
Jones has voiced a willingness to buck the far right in his state. At Auburn, he recounted a chat he had earlier in the day with a lifelong Republican at a barbecue restaurant in Montgomery. While there, he moved from table to table with his shirt sleeves rolled up as the scent of pulled pork and chicken wafted through the air.
“He asked me an interesting question,” Jones recalled of the conversation. “He said if it comes down to what you think the people of Alabama want versus what you know in your heart is better for the United States, what would you do? I said my needle would have to really go toward what’s best for the United States and hope that I can educate the people of Alabama so that they’ll understand.”
Jones has clearly lost some voters along the way. The voter who asked about abortion — “That’s an issue that I do disagree with you on, and it’s an issue that’s really, really important to me” — didn’t stop the candidate from repeating his position.
“I do believe in a woman’s right to choose,” Jones said, receiving applause from the mostly friendly crowd. He said he supported current laws, not a change some conservatives have embraced to ban most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Later, Charlie Morris, 72, a retired lawyer, said a moderate Republican friend planned to vote for Jones but was turned off by Jones’s appearance with Biden. “He asked me to deliver the message: Please don’t bring any more national Democrats to Alabama,” Morris said.
Jones defended his decision to stump with Biden, whom he called “working-class Joe.”
Jones is looking at some of the issues Congress is debating. In the interview, he said he was “not really crazy about” much of what he’d seen of the emerging tax bill that congressional Republicans are crafting, saying it would benefit mainly the wealthiest Americans. He also voiced concerns about adding to the deficit.
On health care, he said he would vote for some version of the compromise bill to restore federal subsidies ended by Trump in exchange for greater state freedoms under the Affordable Care Act. Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) negotiated that measure.
Jones described himself as a “Second Amendment guy” who owns guns. He said expanded background checks on firearm sales, particularly at gun shows, “would be helpful,” if difficult to fine-tune in a bill.
Asked which current senator he looked to as a model for consensus-driven governance, he named several: Murray, Alexander, John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
Many of Jones’s supporters speak about Moore with horror and fear. “I’m scared of the man,” said Vee Carlton, who came to the barbecue restaurant to greet Jones.
Carlton pondered the qualities the next senator from Alabama should have, before tucking into a salad topped with pulled pork.
“I want someone who will support all Americans,” said Carlton, who wore a shirt emblazoned with “Nevertheless, she persisted,” a supportive nod to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
Whether Jones will get to join Warren and the other senators in Washington will be decided in the coming weeks. Even some of Jones’s backers aren’t feeling great about his odds.
“I think Moore’s going to win,” said Jeff Damron, 65, a retired educator who came to Auburn to cheer Jones on. “And I’m not sure it’s even going to be close.”