Doug Jones, a candidate for the U.S. Senate from Alabama, has two political positions that make him an underdog in the closely watched Dec. 12 election: He’s a Democrat, and he’s unabashedly in favor of abortion rights.
In the heart of the deeply conservative South, it’s difficult to say which is more of a disadvantage — even when running against Republican Roy Moore, who has twice been kicked off the state Supreme Court and stands accused of inappropriately touching multiple women, including a 14-year-old girl when he was in his 30’s, as reported by the Washington Post.
The Democratic Party faces an unforgiving landscape in Alabama, which hasn’t elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in 20 years. Neighboring Deep South states generally follow suit, though Louisiana recently elected a Democratic governor with a staunch anti-abortion position.
Jones, 63, is a former federal prosecutor, best known for convicting two former Ku Klux Klan members who bombed an African American church in 1963. Moore, 70, is scandal-ridden to the point where some top Republicans have denounced his candidacy, though he enjoys the support of President Donald Trump.
Jones briefly led in a JMC Analytics poll after the initial Washington Post story on November 9 detailed several allegations of Moore having relationships with teens when he was in his 30’s. That advantage has evaporated. Moore is ahead, 49 percent to 45 percent, in the latest poll released December 9 from Gravis Marketing and cited by the local Al.com publication. The poll had a 2.8-point margin of error, making the election a toss up.
A stark difference in candidates
The Alabama Court of Judiciary has twice removed Moore from serving as the chief justice of Alabama. The first time, in 2003, stemmed from his continued defiance of an order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state Supreme Court building. After being elected again to the position in 2013, he was removed from office in 2016 for refusing to uphold federal law recognizing same-sex marriage. Moore said he believes “homosexuality should be illegal,” when speaking in this video.
Roy Moore’s opposition to abortion is clear. He is a supporter of the “personhood movement,” a belief that life starts at fertilization. In 2012, he co-authored a personhood amendment for the state constitution of Oklahoma, an initiative that he also supports in Alabama.
Jones makes his stand on abortion equally plain on his campaign website: “I will defend a woman’s right to choose and stand with Planned Parenthood.” In a televised MSNBC interview, the former federal prosecutor also called himself “a firm believer that a woman should have the freedom to choose what happens to her own body.”
Jones has a substantive difference with Alabama voters on this issue. A 2014 Pew Research poll found that 58 percent of Alabama voters believed that abortion should be “illegal in all/most cases.” Here, steadfast anti-abortion Republicans candidates are sure to distinguish their platform from that of their Democratic counterparts. In the handful of instances where they find themselves in a tight race, they hammer home the point.
Kayla Moore, wife of Roy Moore, accused Jones of supporting “full-term abortion” in a prepared speech aired by CNN. Politifact, a media watchdog group, found no evidence of full-term abortions existing. Though Jones does oppose legislating bans on the procedure during the second trimester.
The U.S. Senate is now considering the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. The bill would ban abortion after 20 weeks of gestation, with few exceptions, something that Jones said in a televised interview on MSNBC that he opposes. However, CNN reported that the Senate is unlikely to vote on the matter.
Success of an anti-abortion Democrat
Democrat Jon Bel Edwards defied the anti-Democratic trend in the South, but he did so by supporting the conservative view on abortion. Edwards was elected governor of Louisiana in 2015, a state where 57 percent of residents believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, according to Pew Research. That’s only 1 percentage point less than how Alabamians responded to the same 2014 survey.
There are additional parallels between the Doug Jones candidacy and that of Edwards. Besides being Democrats from “The South,” a colloquial term referring to former Confederate states, both candidates were faced with scandal-tainted Republicans in their respective races.
Edwards ran against then-U.S. Senator David Vitter, a social conservative who faced multiple allegations of soliciting prostitutes. Similar to Jones, the Edwards campaign focused on the personal character of his opponent.
As Vitter’s morals were being questioned, he was unable to counter with the abortion argument available to Moore in Alabama. Edwards is an anti-abortion Democrat who has consistently received a 100 percent rating by the Louisiana Right to Life Federation. His anti-abortion position was a defining feature of his 2015 campaign.
“He’s a Democrat, but I think that he’s very conservative in a lot of the ways that matter with social conservatives, particularly on abortion,” said Robert Mann, a Democrat and a political scientist at Louisiana State University. “On social issues, he didn’t do anything really to make Republicans uncomfortable. That made Vitter’s job just so much harder.”
Edwards’ anti-abortion stance has not ebbed since entering the Louisiana statehouse. As governor, he passed legislation that triples the wait time needed to receive an abortion, and banned the ‘dilation and evacuation’ procedure commonly used in second-trimester abortions.
Nuance on abortion doesn’t mean much
In a state just as anti-abortion as Louisiana, Jones’ self-described abortion-rights candidacy may be what keeps him from the senate seat. His supporters, however, see his record as being misconstrued.
“He’s definitely a pro-choice candidate, but to be clear, he’s not a pro-abortion candidate” Cindi Branham told WikiTribune, the spokeswoman for the Madison County Democratic Committee, a volunteer position. “They say things like he supports ‘full-term abortion.’ Well, that’s not even a real thing. That’s called birth.”
Even if the Senate doesn’t vote on the strict 20-week abortion ban, it still plays a critical role in funding for reproductive-health initiatives, which include the procedure. The proposed White House budget for 2018 includes defunding Planned Parenthood, an organization that performs abortions as one of its services. Jones explicitly supports Planned Parenthood on his campaign website.
In a state that tolerates little nuance on the issue, Jones’s position on abortion could prevent him from winning over Republican voters who are disenchanted by Moore — a demographic that could be significant. Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill told local news outlet WHNT News 19 that roughly 14 percent of state voters participated in the September Republican runoff election between Roy Moore and Luther Strange, the establishment Republican candidate.
Considering Trump also faced sexual misconduct allegations when running for office, including the infamous Access Hollywood tape, it is difficult to gauge whether Trump-voting Alabamians are actually alienated by Moore’s alleged behavior. A Change Research poll found that only 9 percent of Trump voters believe the allegations against Moore.
If Trump voters are not willing to cross party lines, Jones can still attract Alabamians who didn’t participate in the 2016 presidential election. After voter drives this year, there are about 1.3 million people out of roughly 3.3 million total registered voters in Alabama who did not vote last year.
Democrats keep politics local
Trump told a crowd of supporters to “get out and vote for Roy Moore” at a rally in Pensacola, Florida, less than 60 miles from the Alabama border, as shown in this video from CNN. Several other Republican leaders have also backed Moore’s candidacy, despite the accusations of sexual misconduct.
Jones has not received the same support from his party leaders in Washington. Few party leaders have visited Alabama during this pivotal race. Former Vice President Joe Biden was one of the few exceptions.
Republicans have painted the former prosecutor as having ties with national party, Senator Minority Leader Charles Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in particular. Trump referred to Jones as a “puppet” for the national Democratic agenda in a December 8 tweet.
LAST thing the Make America Great Again Agenda needs is a Liberal Democrat in Senate where we have so little margin for victory already. The Pelosi/Schumer Puppet Jones would vote against us 100% of the time. He’s bad on Crime, Life, Border, Vets, Guns & Military. VOTE ROY MOORE!
Jones’ pro-choice stance makes him even more vulnerable to the perception of doing the bidding of Washington Democrats. At the end of a political ad from the pro-Trump PAC America First Action, Jones’ face is placed next to that of Pelosi, Schumer and Hillary Clinton while criticizing his support for “late-term abortions.”
“This is a local race. That doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate the support from others, but we’re here doing this on our own,” said Branham shortly after meeting with Jones and other Democrats.
Democrats in Washington are well aware of the perception problem facing their party in the Deep South. Any sign of a relationship between Southern democratic candidates and the national party proved to be counterproductive during the Obama years. In the 2014 midterm elections, Democratic party institutions spent about $437.5 million in races throughout the country, that included several Senate races in the South, according to the watchdog organization OpenSecrets. However, the investment resulted in no Democratic victories.
One of the lost races in 2014 was three-term Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana. Similar to Jones, her lenient stance on abortion made her a target in the staunchly anti-abortion electorate.
National Right to Life, a hardline organization opposed to abortion, was one of Landrieu’s main critics on abortion in regards to her opposition for the federal legislation that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Besides being “too extreme for Louisiana” regarding abortion, Landrieu also came under attack for her ties to then-President Barack Obama and other Democrats in Washington.
A Republican campaign ad showed footage of Landrieu walking out of Air Force One with Obama in order to illustrate a cozy relationship.
Jones has avoided a similar photo op. Without ties to prominent Democrats in Washington, there is still a chance he could survive his abortion-rights position in the Deep South state.