‘This is a rarity’: Democratic optimism swells in Alabama’s Senate campaign, Republicans remain unimpressed

Democrat Doug Jones has been a darling on the campaign trail, drawing large crowds in areas that heavily backed President Donald Trump 11 months ago. But Republicans remain confident that they will win, as they almost always do, during the Dec. 12, 2017, general election. (file photo).

In DeKalb County, Donald Trump got 83.5 percent of the votes in the presidential election last November. This November, the senior citizens center in Fyffe is preparing to host the "biggest Democratic event we’ve ever had."

In Colbert County, where Trump collected 68 percent of the vote, 250 Democrats showed up to a dinner in Muscle Shoals Monday that typically draws 60.

And on Wednesday, cars lined several south Mobile streets leading to a riverside house. The reason for this excitement? Doug Jones, the Birmingham lawyer and Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate who polling shows is running a tight contest against Republican Roy Moore.

"Hope," one supporter said in Mobile about Jones’ candidacy.

"A quality candidate," another attendee said.

"This is a rarity," said Helen Clark, an Orange Beach resident and co-chair of the South Baldwin County Democrats ahead of Jones’ appearances this week in Mobile and Baldwin counties.

Trump won Baldwin County with 77 percent of the vote. Still, Clark and her friends are running phone banks and door-to-door campaigns in support of Jones.

"I’ve been in Alabama for 10 years, and I think back, there really hasn’t been anything where we really felt we had a chance," Clark said.

Optimism abounds for Democrats who have been downtrodden for over a decade. Typically in Alabama, the hardest battle for GOP candidates is the one that they fight with each other in the party primary.

"We got squashed for years," said Edward Vaughn, chairman of the Houston County Democratic Party.

He said, however, that the national Republican Party seems to be tearing itself apart under the influence of Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist and current Brietbart News chief executive. "I think that is good for the people of Alabama and good for the Democratic Party," Vaughn said.

The former White House chief strategist and current Breitbart executive chairman has his eyes set on Alabama during the final weeks of the campaign leading up to the Sept. 26 runoff. Bannon backs former judge Roy Moore in an attempt to deliver Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a setback.

Indeed, the Jones campaign recently announced it has raised $1.3 million between July and September.

The combination of some good poll numbers and substantial dollars, along with a general distaste among Democrats for Republican Roy Moore’s social conservatism, has provided a rare grassroots presence for Democrats in deep red Alabama.

‘Good ground game’

Republicans dispute any notion of disruptive in-fighting left over from a heated primary between Moore and Sen. Luther Strange. They also point to a powerful political reality: The voting numbers from recent elections, simply put, overwhelmingly favor the GOP.

Alabama voters gave Trump with the largest margin of victory that any presidential candidate has received within the state since 1972.

"We saw a record-breaking 2016 primary and general election vote," said Terry Lathan, chairwoman of the Alabama GOP. "In the August 2017 U.S. Senate primaries, the Democrats had a total of 164,500 voters, while 422,800 Republicans voted. In our Sept. 26 runoff, we saw 480,000 Republicans come back to vote."

She added, "Alabama is a solid conservative state and we continually reject liberal politics that Alabama Democrats support."

In Baldwin County, where Democrats believe they are making some inroads, Republican leader Michael Hoyt said, "There is nothing that indicates in recent electoral history that a Democrat is going to win a United States Senate seat in the state of Alabama. They may make a little noise and host an event or two, but they have no impact in our county or in the state."

Added Brent Buchanan, a Montgomery-based GOP strategist: "It’s kind of like if you were morbidly obese, you thought about getting healthy and you lost two pounds after a few weeks. Yes, you lost weight, but you’re still 398 pounds beyond healthy."

Although Baldwin voters haven’t backed a Democrat for any county, state or national office in recent memory, Clark and her Democratic team are undeterred.

In Baldwin County, four regional networks within the Democratic Party have been formed in recent months. And each group is coalescing around Jones’ campaign.

"We’ve had Democrats come out of the bushes who didn’t know we had an active group in Baldwin County," Clark said. "In the past, there were county committees that were fairly weak and not that many people who were involved. But since Trump was elected, we’ve totally revived our county committee."

Clark said the regional groups have been established this year to include the coastal area of Orange Beach and Gulf Shores; the Eastern Shore of Daphne, Spanish Fort and Fairhope; Central Baldwin, which includes areas like Robertsdale and Loxley; and North Baldwin County that encompasses a large rural area.

"We’ve had people who are working hard and who are enthusiastic," said Clark, who explained that without the regional clubs, meetings would be too far for most to attend. "Now that we’re getting ready for the election, we are canvassing and phone banking."

In DeKalb County, Democrats are preparing to cram visitors into a senior center for the group’s November dinner. Jones is the keynote speaker, though other candidates for state and county offices in 2018, will also be talking.

"We have a dinner every year and if we get 120 people showing it, we consider that a good little turnout," said John Baker, a former state senator in the 1970s who headed up the Alabama Democratic Party in the late ’80s.

He added, "Our November 7 event … we are looking at 300 people. It will be the largest Democratic event we’ve ever had."

Jones’ popularity among Democrats – and Moore’s unpopularity among Democrats – are clearly driving the interest.

A U.S. attorney during Bill Clinton’s presidency, Jones is credited with overseeing the conviction of the Klansmen responsible for the 1964 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

Jones himself said, "People are responding to our message … health care and jobs. I think people are looking for a real change. A unifier. We’re seeing a good ground game with independents and Republicans who just don’t like where the Republican nomination has gone this time."

Moore’s social and religious liberty crusades have generated him a strong following over the years, but it’s also created plenty of political enemies. Moore was ousted as state chief justice in 2003 for refusing to remove a statue of the Ten Commandments from the state Supreme Court building. He was suspended last year for directing probate judges not to issue same-sex marriage licenses.

"We have a lot of people here who are so anti-Moore — including Republicans — who are asking for signs and information and wanting to help with the campaign," said Vivian Beckerle, chairwoman of the Mobile County Democrats.

‘Plenty of debt’

But while Jones travels around the state, meeting with Democratic supporters, a question has started to emerge: Has his candidacy added value to the battered brand of the Alabama Democratic Party?

Skeptics are many. Among them is Matthew Tyson, a Calhoun County Democrat and frequent opinion page writer who believes the state’s Democratic Party needs a shake-up.

"People are motivated, excited and putting in a lot of great work," said Tyson. "There’s a strong sense of optimism and determination that is, frankly, inspiring." Still, he added, "But I don’t think you can say that Jones is increasing numbers for the Democrats, at least not right now."

Said William Stewart, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alabama and a longtime observer of state politics: "I believe the candidacy of Doug Jones has helped the Alabama Democratic Party, although not greatly."

Nancy Worley, the chairwoman of the state party since 2013, said that despite the enthusiasm for the Jones’ campaign, financial debt within the party remains. There are also divisions within the party, with some factions clamoring for a change in leadership.

Worley, herself, generated headlines when she first took office by vividly describing the party’s financial state as being "broke, broke, broke."

In an interview in recent days, she said the party is "four to five years" away from paying off its debt. She could not say how much the party owes its lenders.

"We’re trying to focus on money for the candidates as opposed to money for the party right now," said Worley, who is also unsure how involved the Democratic National Committee and other leading national organizations might become before the Dec. 12 Senate election. "We do have plenty of debt, but not as much as we used to have. We’ve paid it down … we’re doing better every day."

The lack of resources from state and national groups trickles down to the local groups. In Covington County, for example, scant resources keep Democrats from staging effective campaigns. Trump won almost 84 percent of the vote in Covington last November.

"We have about 400 or 500 who vote a Democrat down here, but that’s the extent of it," said Billy Hughes, chairman of the Covington County party. "We have no money to operate. It’s a tough road."

State Rep. Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, a former minority leader of the Alabama House, is a frequent critic of the state party’s leadership behind Worley and party boss Joe Reed. He said a "significant lack of leadership" at the top has hindered Democrats seeking statewide office.

Ford said it’s the local county parties that are stepping up for Jones.

Jones, a Birmingham lawyer recognized for prosecuting the two men responsible for the 1963 Sixteenth Church bombing, won Tuesday’s Democratic general election handily. But in deep-red Alabama, can Jones make a pitch for a political upset?

"Many of the local parties go above and beyond to fill the gaps, and their efforts are the only reason the party has a pulse at all in Alabama," said Ford. "It’s been a problem for many years, with every Democratic candidate pretty much having to do everything themselves with little or no help from the party."

He added, "Doug’s campaign is going to have to do the heavy lifting."

‘A good place’

But whether Jones wins or not, some Democrats believe his campaign could be establishing a baseline structure for future races. Most notably, the 2018 governor’s race has drawn at least two Democrats with political heft: Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox and former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb.

"There is going to be this existing infrastructure that a Democratic nominee for governor can tap into that is already been started," said Zac McCrary, a Democratic pollster for Anzalone Liszt Research in Montgomery. "You’ll have high-quality candidates, organic Democratic energy and infrastructure. It’s a good place."

Republicans are ready for the challenge, and they question the long-term impact of the newly energized Democratic base in Alabama. After all, they say, Moore has his own energetic support network.

"There seems to be Democrats who are organized here in Fairhope and Daphne and the Eastern Shore area and we are well-aware of their meetings and in what they are trying to do," said Cody Phillips, chair of the Eastern Shore Common Sense Campaign tea party. "But I think it will probably flame out."

Lathan isn’t taking anything to chance. The Republican National Committee, she said, is working "hand in glove" with the state party and the Moore campaign to ensure victory Dec. 12.

She said, "We are at full force and will not take our foot off the pedal until the polls close on Dec. 12."

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