Politics

Alabama Senate Race Shifts Into General Election Mode

National party organizations are watching the race to determine involvement

Judge Roy Moore campaign worker Maggie Ford collects campaign signs after a candidate forum. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The campaigns on opposite sides of the Alabama Senate race are starting to gear up for a general election, as the national parties are watching to see if they will get involved.

Democrats acknowledge their candidate, former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, faces an uphill climb to victory in the Republican state. One Jones adviser said more resources would help, but that GOP nominee, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, has has been even more helpful to their cause.

“The Republican candidate helps us more than any national party or any party committee, I can tell you that for a fact,” said Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, who is advising the Jones campaign. “Because none of those committees can get Republicans to give to us, and he is getting Republicans to give to us.”

Moore easily won the Republican runoff against Sen. Luther Strange, who was appointed to the seat when former Sen. Jeff Sessions became attorney general. But Alabamians in both parties say some Republicans are turned off by Moore’s past (he was twice removed from the bench) and his controversial statements. 

For now national Republicans and Democrats are still assessing the race. But the campaigns have already started gearing up for the two-month sprint to the Dec. 12 general election.

Will Democrats jump in?

One Democratic senator summed up how Democrats are approaching the race in one word: “skeptically.”

“We’re wary of an Ossoff situation,” the senator said, referencing the expensive special election in Georgia’s 6th District, where Democrat Jon Ossoff lost.

“It’s arguably structurally worse because it’s Alabama as opposed to a somewhat swingy House district,” the senator said on Tuesday. “But here’s how it’s not an Ossoff situation: Doug Jones is not Jon Ossoff. Doug Jones is pretty goddamn impressive.”

As a former prosecutor, Jones has been praised by Democrats as someone who could appeal to Republicans and Independents. He is known in the state for prosecuting Ku Klux Klan members responsible for the 1963 bombing at a Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed four young girls.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen updated his colleagues on the race at their Tuesday caucus lunch, and said he told them “that we have a terrific candidate.”

Though national Democrats are monitoring the race, some progressive groups and Alabama Democrats are encouraging the party to send resources South.

“I don’t think people should dismiss this race out of hand just because it’s Alabama,” said John Anzalone, a Montogomery-based Democratic pollster who also worked on Ossoff’s race.

Anzalone said one key difference with the Georgia race is that, in Alabama, the electorate could include more African American voters, who tend to support Democrats. He estimated that percentage could be in the “high 20s.” Anzalone estimated Jones would need to garner “mid- to high-thirties” of the white vote to pull off a win.

Jones also has the backing of liberal groups including MoveOn.org and End Citizens United. On Tuesday night MoveOn.org, which has 40,000 members in Alabama, sent out a fundraising blast encouraging its members to donate to Jones’ campaign with the subject line, “A real chance in deep red America.”

MoveOn.org’s elections field director Matt Blizek said Democrats need to engage in the race. He likened it to Republicans engaging in the special election in Massachusetts in 2010, when Republican Scott Brown won in the deep blue state, and shifted the dynamics in the Senate.

“If you don’t show up and don’t try, you’re automatically going to lose this race,” Blizek said.

MoveOn.org will mainly help with fundraising and supporting their Alabama members, Blizek said. So far the Jones campaign has seen a surge in donations since the Tuesday runoff, passing the $1 million mark in total funds raised since Jones launched his campaign.

Even as some outside groups turn attention on the race, and national Democrats weigh jumping in, Trippi said Jones will keep the focus on Alabama.

“I’m sure we’ll take all the help we can get,” Trippi said. “But in the end this is going to be about integrity and character and a senator that Alabamians can be proud of and not embarrassed by. I don’t think Washington’s going to have much to say in this.”

But the Moore campaign is already signaling that it will try to link Jones to the liberal wing of the party.

“We will each be tied to those [national party] platforms,” said Moore campaign chairman Bill Armistead. “I think it’s going to be something very clear to distinguish between conservative Republican Roy Moore and liberal Democrat Doug Jones.”

Republicans Attempt Unity

Armistead said Moore has taken a few days off from campaigning, but his team has been working to bring Strange’s supporters on board.

Armistead was confident Republicans would come together after the bitter primary, even though Moore sharply criticized Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his allies for backing Strange.

Moore spoke with McConnell and NRSC Chairman Cory Gardner after the runoff, said Armistead. The campaign chairman has also spoken with Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and said, “She’s pledged the resources necessary from the RNC to help us ensure that we have a Republican victory in December.”

The National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Senate Leadership Fund, a Super PAC aligned with McConnell, quickly announced they would support Moore even thought they backed Strange in the runoff.

But at this point it’s not clear if or how much national Republicans could spend on the race.

“I don’t think we’ll have to,” said one GOP strategist when asked if Republicans could spend millions again, like during the runoff. “The real fight in a state like that, that’s so solidly Republican, is the primary.”

Some Republicans said GOP involvement could depend on whether Democrats pour resources into the state that can actually make a difference.

But there is also a question about Moore’s vulnerability in the general election.

President Donald Trump, while campaigning for Strange, said Moore “has a very good chance of not winning in the general election.” He also pledged to campaign for Moore if Moore won the runoff.

“I think that’s right,” said Alabama GOP Rep. Bradley Byrne when asked about whether Moore could have a tough time in the general election.

Byrne pointed to Moore’s last statewide election to the state Supreme Court in 2012. Moore won by four points, while GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won the state by 23 points.

But Byrne noted that the December election would likely have much lower turnout than 2012, which could favor Moore.

The Turnout Problem

Both campaigns said they would be focused on turning out their voters in December, but Byrne said that would be a tall order.

Byrne was first elected to the House in a December special election. He said his campaign struggled getting voters’ attention amid Thanksgiving, the Alabama-Auburn football game, college football finals and Christmas.

“We bought these signs bigger than usual yard signs and put them out in intersections that said, ‘Merry Christmas, don’t forget to vote,’” Byrne said. “We thought the Merry Christmas part might get their eyes. We still didn’t have good turnout.”

Byrne said Democrats would have to spend a lot of money on a turnout operation since the state Democratic Party has crumbled in recent years.

But Trippi was confident the Jones team could leverage their “thousands” of volunteers to boost turnout.

Anzalone also said recent special elections have demonstrated energy on the Democratic side, with voters who had not participated in midterm or special elections heading to the polls. He also said Republican turnout may be depressed after the heated primary, and anti-Moore sentiment had grown since he was removed from the bench a second time for defying the Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage.

“I think people are going to come out of the woodwork,” Anzalone said. “We almost beat [Moore] in 2012. I think that, again, the disdain for him is even higher.”

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