BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Democrat Doug Jones debuted Wednesday as the next senator from Alabama by sidestepping highly charged topics, steering clear of criticism — and leaving wide open the question of what kind of lawmaker he will be.
Jones, who will narrow the Republican majority in the Senate to 51 to 49 when he is sworn in, will arrive in Washington in the next few weeks with unusual influence for a freshman member of the party out of power. Democrats are looking to strengthen their clout to block Republican legislation they oppose. Republicans are hoping for a moderate partner across the aisle to keep their agenda on track.
And Jones will face his own considerations: whether to support the liberal policies of the party that helped elect him in Tuesday’s dramatic upset over Republican Roy Moore in Alabama or to tack to the center or even to the right to prepare for what is likely to be a difficult reelection contest in three years in one of the most conservative states in the country.
In a wide-ranging, 42-minute news conference here Wednesday, Jones was vague about what his strategy would be. “The people of Alabama expect me to do the right thing and vote for the people of Alabama,” he said.
One priority Jones identified was reauthorizing the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which expired Sept. 30. “I’d like to be a part of that, if it’s not done very soon,” he said.
He did not join calls by some Democratic senators for President Trump to resign amid allegations of sexual harassment, which the president has denied. “I’m not going to go there,” he said.
Instead, Jones went out of his way to avoid hostilities with Trump, who had criticized him sharply while campaigning for Moore in the closing days of the campaign. Jones also recounted that Trump had extended an olive branch, inviting him to the White House in a phone call that Jones described as “gracious.”
Jones is a former federal prosecutor best known for prosecuting two Ku Klux Klan members who bombed a black church in Birmingham in 1963, killing four girls. In some key respects, he sounds more like a standard Democrat than an Alabama centrist. On abortion, Jones’s views are in line with those of many Democratic leaders. He has voiced support for current laws and not for a change that some conservatives have embraced, to ban most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Jones is also open to more gun control regulations and has voiced concerns about the GOP tax plan.
Jones said he had not yet spoken to Moore, who had refused to concede a race with a victory margin of fewer than 2 percentage points.
Allegations of sexual misconduct surrounded Moore in the closing weeks of the campaign. “Do the right thing, Roy,” Jones said, when asked what he would say to Moore if he were watching. “It’s time that we heal.”
A Moore spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In Washington, Senate Democrats urged Republican leaders to pump the brakes on their tax bill until Jones is seated — a demand that neither Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) nor Trump heeded.
“I think it’s very important for the country to get a vote next week,” Trump said.
Jones offered an inconclusive appraisal of the Democratic strategy, noting that there are a “lot of moving pieces” when it comes to certifying the election and seating him. Jones said he spoke to McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Wednesday.
Jones also spoke to Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), whom he called a “longtime friend.”
The Democrat was boosted to victory Tuesday by a supercharged Democratic voter base activated in large measure by an army of out-of-state supporters. He will need to retain the support of the state’s many liberal-leaning voters and African Americans who appear increasingly repulsed by the GOP agenda, as well as the support of the national activists who assisted him.
Yet Jones could become a pivotal swing vote who would stand to gain politically by sometimes siding with Republicans. He faces a reelection contest in 2020, a presidential year, when turnout among the state’s many conservative voters is typically high.
Inevitably, Jones will have to make difficult decisions in the coming years that risk angering one side or the other.
“If anything, he got elected as an Alabama Democrat, not as a Washington Democrat. They’ve got to understand there is a difference,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), a fellow red-state Democrat. “If he comes, he has to be true to Alabama and understand they want common sense.”
Democrats held up Jones as a model for success in the midterm elections. And Jones said he wanted to change Alabama’s laws to make it easier to vote, a move long championed by Democrats in the face of restrictive measures Republicans have pushed.
Even as Jones cozied up to Republican figures, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Thomas Perez, said the way Jones won “is exactly the way Democrats can win everywhere.”
Perez said the DNC spent about $1 million to help Jones below the radar. The money went toward turning out African Americans and millennials, he said.
Exit poll data showed that strong turnout from black voters was a major factor in Jones’s victory. He said at his news conference Wednesday that he would like to see Alabama ease its voter laws, which are among the strictest in the nation and which critics argue disproportionately hurt African Americans.
“I’d like to make it easier for people to exercise their right to vote. And I think we can do that over the course of time,” Jones said.
After Jones’s win, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Cory Gardner (Colo.) issued a statement saying he hoped Jones would “do the right thing” for Alabama and vote with Senate Republicans.
Jones laughed off Gardner’s comment, saying, “I would expect a Republican to say that,” and for Democrats to do the same.
A senior White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly, expressed cautious optimism that being up for reelection in 2020 will make Jones a moderate figure the West Wing can work with.
Running for Senate was something Jones, 63, had always had in the back of his mind. He got a taste of it years ago working as staff counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee for Howell Heflin, Alabama’s last Democratic senator.
“It just all seemed like the right time and the right place and the right moment in my life to do it,” he said in a late October interview with The Washington Post.
On Tuesday, Jones's long-shot bet to snatch away a Republican-held seat in the heart of the conservative Deep South paid off. As it turned out, he was in the right place at the right time — a candidate lifted to victory in large measure by a series of twists and turns on the GOP side.
A September primary win by Moore, a polarizing former state judge, ruined plans by Senate GOP leaders to boost to victory Republican Sen. Luther Strange, who had been appointed to the seat after Trump named Jeff Sessions to be his attorney general. Then Moore came up against accusations first reported by The Post in November that he made unwanted sexual advances toward teenage girls as young as 14 when he was in his 30s. The controversy catapulted Jones into serious contention.
On Wednesday, Jones said he didn't know whether he would have won had the women not come forward.
Shelby, who waged a vocal campaign against Moore and urged Republicans to write in someone else, as he did, said he spoke with Jones on Wednesday morning. Jones aggressively spotlighted Shelby’s opposition to Moore toward the end of his campaign, as he tried to persuade Republicans not to vote for their nominee.
Now, Shelby is hoping Jones doesn’t veer too far to the left.
“I’m hoping he’ll be a common-sense Democrat,” he said.
Weigel reported from Washington. Elise Viebeck, Robert Costa and Ashley Parker in Washington contributed to this report.