Alabama irony: Democrats are the elephants in the room
Some high-profile Democrats are flying into Alabama this weekend to encourage people to send Doug Jones to the Senate.
His campaign wants it known that he didn't ask for the help as he tries to upset controversial Republican Roy Moore in Tuesday's special election.
Jones and national Democrats have tried to keep Washington's fingerprints off the race, given the party's unpopularity in Alabama.
Jones has to win over an electorate that President Donald Trump carried by 28 percentage points, and hasn't elected a Democrat to be senator in a quarter-century. He's trying to persuade reliably conservative white voters to abandon their usual loyalties while firing up turnout among black voters and white liberals who typically combine for about 40 percent of the vote.
Even with an opponent like Moore - twice removed as the state's top judge and now accused of sexual misconduct with teenage girls - Democrats quietly admit that Jones can't build a winning coalition if he's viewed as tethered too closely to potential colleagues on Capitol Hill. So Jones keeps his distance, and national party operatives and grassroots organizations stay in the background.
"This is an Alabama-based campaign run on issues all Alabamians care about, like jobs, education, the economy," says Jones' top campaign aide Giles Perkins, a veteran Democratic player in Alabama.
Jones, who grew up in metro Birmingham's old steel mill neighborhoods, is a former prosecutor best known for helping convict two Ku Klux Klansmen responsible for killing four black children in the 1963 bombing of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church. He mixes attacks on Moore with an emphasis on his biography and economic arguments about "kitchen-table issues."
Even when it comes to sexual misbehavior, Jones notes that Democrats stand accused as well.
"I applaud the women who have come forward against Roy Moore. And I think it's time that those women be believed, just like the women who are coming out against Sen. (Al) Franken, Rep. (John) Conyers and others," Jones said Wednesday.
Jones also walks a tightrope with surrogates. Former Vice President Joe Biden campaigned with Jones in October, but the candidate has crisscrossed the state mostly on his own since. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick will appear with Jones this weekend, but Perkins emphasized that it was Rep. Terri Sewell, Alabama's lone Democrat in Congress, who extended the invites to her fellow black Democrats.
Sewell spokesman Chris MacKenzie said that the congresswoman invited Booker and that her constituents asked Patrick to visit. "She's been working with Doug to make sure these are successful events," MacKenzie said.
The campaign is maintaining its cautious course, even as Moore has regained support from his national party and Trump. The president said he accepts Moore's denials of sexual impropriety and warned "we don't need a liberal Democrat" in the seat held previously by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
National Democrats' reluctance is evident in their lack of a major advertising push or cash transfers to the Jones campaign by party committees. Asked about the race, a spokesman at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's Washington headquarters declined to say anything on the record, deferring to Jones.
It's a stark contrast to this year's other headliner campaigns, which gave Democrats big wins in Virginia's statewide and legislative elections, and a bitter defeat in Georgia. In both cases, the national party and activist groups poured millions into advertising and voter turnout.
As Georgia's special congressional election became the most expensive House race in American history, Republicans used the spending to define Democrat Jon Ossoff as a tool of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, an unpopular figure in Atlanta's GOP-leaning suburbs.
"It's just part of the Republican playbook right now to nationalize these races where they have the built-in advantage," says Keenan Pontoni, who managed Ossoff's race.
Jones has mostly escaped the onslaught of attack ads Ossoff faced, but both races offer reminders that Democrats must address their own branding challenges ahead of the 2018 midterm elections and not simply count on dissatisfaction with Trump and Republicans.
Jones is targeting likely voters with the help of national Democratic Party's database of Alabamians' voting history, consumer preferences and political leanings. National party fundraising emails urge donors to support him - but they're boilerplate campaign tactics.
There are no campaign offices financed or staffed by the Democratic National Committee, no national party ads on television. Jones' television ads don't mention his party. The state Democratic Party, such as it is, has been sidelined.
"We just have two paid staffers," and no DNC funding beyond the $10,000 monthly allowance every state party gets nationwide, Alabama Democratic Party Chairwoman Nancy Worley said.
What Jones doesn't lack is money: As of Nov. 22, he outraised Moore $11.8 million to $5.3 million.
Perkins said donations paid for enough staffers to shepherd in-state volunteers.
"We are out there every day finding progressive voters in every neighborhood we can," says Susan Griffin, a leader of Huntsville's chapter of Indivisible, a grassroots organization of the left.
Democrats say they haven't ceded organizational advantages to Moore, because the Republican National Committee also kept its distance before belatedly committing to a mere $170,000 in last-minute support.
"This is the first time since the 90s that we have seen anything like this, all this excitement," Worley said. "Democrats truly believe we can win."
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