Is there any way Alabama’s Democratic Sen.-elect Doug Jones can keep the seat he won Tuesday if he faces a strong Republican when he is up for re-election in 2020?
Yes. And here’s how.
Jones won a close race against Roy Moore, a weak opponent dragged down by allegations of past sexual misconduct with teenage girls and a disregard for the Constitution that got him tossed off the state Supreme Court twice.
In any future election, a better GOP opponent will hammer Jones as a pro-choice politician in a state with many evangelical voters and some of the most restrictive laws on abortion in the nation.
Republicans will also label Jones as a Hillary Clinton supporter. President Trump beat Clinton in Alabama by 29 points.
And in a state with racially polarized politics, Jones is a white man who won largely on the strength of high voter turnout among black voters.
So how does Jones play these cards to put himself in position to win a bid for re-election in three years?
My advice is simple: reach for the stars shining down on Alabama.
Speak to the best of Alabama as a state ready to open its doors to more global businesses like the Mercedes-Benz plant outside Birmingham and to federal agencies like the NASA facility in Huntsville.
Speak to the best of Alabama as a state ready to improve all its schools and universities. That will allow the state’s business community and political leaders to brag about their workforce and attract 21st century jobs that require well-trained workers.
By speaking about a better future, Jones can acknowledge that Alabama is burdened across the globe by a bad reputation from its past – a history of upholding white supremacy and racial segregation based on Ku Klux Klan violence.
In addition, Jones can heal wounds by speaking honestly about past political leaders who controlled the state’s poor white people by telling them they had no common destiny with the state’s poor black people.
Jones has the credentials to speak up about that bitter past. He prosecuted the racists responsible for the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed four black girls.
Jones has a surprising partner in his effort to bring new pride to the state. Sen. Richard Shelby, the state’s Republican senator, broke from party loyalty when in the last days of the special election he said he could not vote for Moore.
“The state of Alabama deserves better,” Shelby said, before explaining that he cast his vote for a write-in candidate.
The 83-year-old Shelby is loved in Alabama and he is in no political jeopardy for standing against Moore. Alabama’s business community and the state’s leading newspapers joined Shelby in making it clear that a vote for Moore was a vote to give up on a better future in the state.
Jones can join those Alabama leaders, mostly Republicans, by becoming a new Southern Democrat who takes pride in all of Alabama’s people, across political and racial lines.
And Jones can speak of the futility of Moore’s hostility to gays, immigrants and Jews. He can point out there is so much for Alabama to gain by making it clear that talented people, entrepreneurs, and creative people of all kinds will be welcomed and their families will love Sweet Home Alabama.
In the Senate, Jones will find he is in the strongest negotiating position of any freshman senator in recent memory.
Before Tuesday’s election, Republicans held a 52-48 seat majority in the Senate. Once Jones is sworn in, that margin will become even narrower, 51-49.
Among the Republican ranks are moderate senators like Maine’s Susan Collins, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Arizona’s John McCain and Jeff Flake. All of them have demonstrated a willingness to buck their own party and vote with the Democrats on major bills.
This math is why Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., immediately called for the vote on the GOP tax cut package to be postponed until after Jones is sworn in. And that’s why Republicans will never allow that to happen.
Both Schumer and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will be courting Jones to persuade him to vote their way.
McConnell hopes that Jones will follow in the tradition of red state Democratic Senators like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp and former Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu These Democrats made a point of crossing the aisle to vote with Republicans on key issues to win over enough conservative voters in their states to ensure their re-elections.
Recall that Manchin, Heitkamp and Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana defected from Schumer to confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
But Jones’ future will be determined in Alabama.
Alabama has a long, tragic and recent history of voter suppression against African-Americans. In a case brought by Alabama’s Shelby County, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the pre-clearance provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and allowed states with a history of racist voter suppression like Alabama to move forward with tough voter identification laws.
These laws disproportionately impact poor black voters, who are less likely to have government-issued identification.
Back in 2015, Alabama announced plans to close 31 state offices that issue government IDs in heavily black Democratic-leaning counties. Hillary Clinton called the move “a blast from the Jim Crow past.”
I have to think Jones would be rewarded electorally by black and lots of white voters in Alabama if he becomes the unifying figure who stands up for voting rights in Congress.
On so many issues, Jones is the man of the hour. He is in position to make history by rising above politics to speak with love for Alabama.