Politics

Alabama Senate race offers GOP its best chance to gain a seat as Democrat Doug Jones battles Tommy Tuberville

Key Points
  • Sen. Doug Jones, a Democrat, faces a tough reelection challenge in Alabama from Republican Tommy Tuberville, the former head football coach of Auburn University.
  • Tuberville has campaigned heavily on his support for President Donald Trump, who is popular in the state.
  • Jones, a former federal prosecutor, likely needs to significantly outpoll Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in Alabama to beat his challenger.
Tommy Tuberville and Doug Jones
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Sen. Doug Jones caught the political equivalent of lightning in a jar when he managed to win a special election as a Democrat in Alabama in 2017 despite years of Republican dominance in statewide elected offices and despite President Donald Trump's popularity there.

But Jones now might have to snag a second bolt of lightning if the former federal prosecutor has a hope of retaining the seat that he has held for less than three years out of one of the nation's reddest red states.

Jones, 66, is facing a tough reelection battle against former college football coach Tommy Tuberville, the Republican nominee.

Tuberville's challenge is so strong that out of the 12 Senate seats held by incumbent Democrats that are at stake in this year's election, only Jones' seat is considered likely to flip to the GOP by political analysts. The GOP, which holds a 53-47 edge in the chamber, is defending 23 seats, with a number of them considered at risk.

Tuberville lacks elected government experience and is making his first foray into electoral politics.

But instead of aggressively engaging with Jones, Tuberville has run a low-key campaign more typically suited to an incumbent who expects to win.

He has refused to debate Jones, just as he would not debate his GOP primary runoff opponent, Jeff Sessions.

"It's like a prize fight where the other guy is swinging wildly to get back in it, but the other guy just keeps backing away," said David Mowery, an Alabama political consultant and head of Mowery Consulting Group.

Mowery said that Tuberville's campaign leaders "don't want him to get out over his skis talking about stuff he doesn't need to talk about."

Tuberville might more than make up for his lack of political experience in widespread name recognition in Alabama, having previously served as head coach of Auburn University's football team from 1999 through 2008.

In the football-mad state the designations of "Republican" and "Democrat" might matter less than that of being a fan of Auburn or of the University of Alabama's Crimson Tide.

Auburn beat Alabama a whopping six consecutive times during Tuberville's tenure, which was bookended by his stints as head coach of the University of Mississippi and then at Texas Tech and the University of Cincinnati.

"That's Celebrity 101, being a football coach" in Alabama, said Angie Maxwell, director of the Diane Blair Center of Southern Politics and Society and an associate professor of political science at the University of Arkansas.

Sticking with Trump

Tuberville, 66, also has aligned himself in lockstep with Trump on policy issues — the would-be senator's campaign did not point to one difference he has with the president with any issue when asked by CNBC.

"His entire candidacy is prefaced on just supporting what the president does," Mowery said.

And in Alabama, Trump holds a whopping average 15-percentage-point lead over former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, according to a recent Real Clear Politics review of polls.

In the 2016 presidential race Trump beat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by more than 62% to 34% in the state.

Given that, and given Jones' vote for Trump's conviction during a Senate trial after he was impeached by the House, it might be no surprise if Tuberville was also up by double digits over Jones.

And polls have mainly suggested that is the case. An Auburn University survey released in early October showed a 12-point lead for Tuberville.

Tuberville's campaign believes that the numbers reflect the idea that Alabama voters want someone who is closely aligned with Trump and who would support the president's judicial appointments, as opposed to Jones, who voted against the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

"What I've been telling folks down here is that Jones can run the perfect race and still lose by 5 to 7 [percentage points] just because the fundamentals of our electorate are so tilted to the Republicans both by attitude and by ... straight-ticket voting," said Mowery.

Mowery noted that Alabama ballots allow a voter to fill in a single bubble to cast votes for all of a single party's candidates, and the percentage of voters who do so in the heavily Republican state is more than 60%.

"That's the biggest problem for the Jones people," Mowery said, referring to the incumbent's need to get a significant number of votes from Republicans.

"He has to convince people who are Republicans to go in and vote for the Republican ticket and then go down the ballot and say, 'I'm going to vote for Doug.'" Mowery said. "It's just very hard to do."

"You have to convince somewhere between 350,000 and 500,000 people to do that."

Before Jones, the last Democrat elected to an Alabama U.S. Senate seat was Howell Heflin, who retired in 1997 after serving three terms. Richard Shelby, the other senator from the state, was elected as a Democrat in 1986 but switched to the GOP in 1994.

Mowery also said that as of a week away from Election Day, he has not seen any evidence of a major influx of outside money flowing into the state at the last minute to either save Jones or boost Tuberville.

Not that Jones' polling challenges seem to be for lack of money.

Jones has dramatically outraised and outspent Tuberville, according to recent data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

As of eight days out from Election Day, Jones' campaign has raised $26.4 million, compared with just $7.4 million by Tuberville, a margin of more than 3-to-1, the CRP data shows. And Jones' campaign has spent $24.5 million versus the $5.9 million spent by Tuberville, a margin of more than 4-to-1.

Jones' hopes

Some analysts who spoke to CNBC, including Maxwell, believe that the race is closer than what the few big polls show.

They said they think Tuberville is holding a single-digit percentage point lead over Jones.

Jones' own recent internal polling showed him with a 1 percentage point lead over the Republican challenger.

"I've never believed the national polling," Jones told reporters days before that poll came to light. "I've never believed someone that comes in here that gives a poll once a year or once every six months."

Tuberville has used the Jones poll to try to spur donations to his campaign. But he's done so even as an internal poll reportedly done for the Tuberville campaign showed him up by 15 points.

To make up ground on Tuberville, Jones has tried to score points on his opponent in a scathing ad capped by the phrase "Remember the Quitter," which has underscored Tuberville's history of abruptly leaving football programs.

Jones' campaign also highlighted recent news stories detailing investment losses by Tuberville of more than $2 million, including in a hedge fund whose partner ended up pleading guilty to fraud and being sentenced to a decade in prison.

Tuberville, who was sued by investors in the fund, privately settled with them in 2013. Tuberville testified the following year at a trial of former University of Georgia football coach Jim Donnan, who was accused of running a massive "Ponzi scheme" by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Donnan, in whose fund Tuberville had invested, was acquitted at trial, but his partner in the fund, Gregory Crabtree, was sentenced to five years in prison after pleading guilty to securities fraud.

Jones' campaign also points to a Tuberville-founded charity for military veterans, which records show has distributed less than one-third of the money it has raised toward helping veterans.

The Tuberville campaign has said he was a victim of the frauds and has said that his charitable foundation actually spent more toward veterans than is indicated in public filings.

"It seems that any criticism of the Foundation, its size, and its work argues that a man who was generous, selfless, and charitable with his own money simply wasn't generous, selfless, and charitable enough. That is an unfair, arbitrary, and subjective standard that simply cannot be met," Tuberville's campaign said in a statement issued this month.

A shocking result

Analysts said that Jones has room to pick up some more ground on Tuberville among Alabama voters. If he does so, and catches some luck at the same time, he has a chance to pull off a second electoral shocker.

The first shocker in 2017 was set in motion by Trump, after the newly elected president appointed then-Sen. Jeff Sessions as his first attorney general. Then-Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley appointed state Attorney General Luther Strange to replace Sessions until a special election was held.

Jones, then a lawyer in private practice, announced his intention to contest for the seat. Jones previously had served as the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. He was best known in that role for winning convictions of two Ku Klux Klansmen for the notorious 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four Black girls, a seminal event in the civil rights era.

Despite being endorsed by Trump, who also campaigned for him, Strange finished second in a Republican primary to the controversial former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who beat him in a runoff.

Moore then snagged Trump's endorsement for the election against Jones.

But the race was rocked weeks before the election by a Washington Post report about women who said Moore had pursued relationships with them when they were in their teens and he was in his 30s. One of those women was 14 years old at the time.

While Moore denied the allegations, his candidacy was damaged, and a number of prominent Republicans nationally abandoned their support of him.

Even with that, Jones just barely won the special election, notching 49.9% of the votes cast against 48.34% for Moore.

The razor-thin margin instantly made Jones a top Senate pick-off target for Republicans, who saw his win as a fluke against a flawed candidate in a state that last had a Democratic senator in 2008.

Tuberville moves in

In August 2018, less than a year after Jones' victory, Tuberville moved to Alabama from Florida as he weighed what became his ultimate decision to run for the Senate.

"I want to help Donald Trump and you get this mess straightened out," Tuberville said during an appearance in 2019, where he argued that the United States was suffering from a decline in moral values.

"And I'm going to do that," Tuberville said.

"But we've got to put Jesus and God before everything else. And if we don't do that we're going to be brought down to our knees again."

Moore also entered the Republican primary. And so did Sessions, who had gone from being U.S. attorney general to being one of Trump's favorite whipping boys, even before he resigned under pressure from the president less than 24 hours after the midterm elections in 2018.

Trump has blasted Sessions for years for recusing himself from the Justice Department's investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Sessions' recusal ended up triggering the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller, whose investigation has continued to infuriate Trump long after it ended.

In the Republican primary, Tuberville edged out Sessions — with Moore running a very distant fourth place. But the former coach failed to win a majority of the votes, which forced a runoff with Sessions.

Trump, who had not endorsed anyone in the primary, then came out hard for Tuberville.

The president, in a tweet, called Sessions "a disaster who has let us all down," adding, "We don't want him back in Washington!"

Tuberville demolished Sessions in the July runoff, beating the former senator by more than 20 percentage points.

Since then, Tuberville has continued hammering away at his conservative platform.

"I'm for guns, our Second Amendment," Tuberville said during a campaign stop in Red Bay, Alabama, in late September.

"I'm against abortion. I'm for religious freedom. Don't tell me where to go and when I can't go to church. We've got to get God back in our schools, folks."

And Tuberville said, "I'm for conservative, Christian judges. We've got one we're fixing to put in," a reference to Trump's recent nominee for the Supreme Court, Judge Amy Coney Barrett.

Tuberville also has called for repeal of the Affordable Care Act, the health-care law popularly known as Obamacare.

Jones' campaign

Jones supports the ACA, along with other traditional Democratic policies. But he also has said he would not be a "rubber stamp" for Biden if they both are elected in November.

There has been recent speculation that if Biden won and Jones lost, Biden would appoint Jones U.S. attorney general.

Jones last week brushed aside that speculation.

"I think the people of Alabama would prefer to have a voice like mine in the Senate as well," Jones told reporters.

"If Joe Biden is elected president, and he is likely to be, (Biden) would rather have me in the United States Senate," Jones said.

"He knows my voice in the U.S. Senate is important in pulling people together. He knows those areas where we agree and disagree and that I can help pull people from the Republican side and from the left in the Democratic Party to get things done."

Race and Alabama

Maxwell, the University of Arkansas political science professor, said "my gut" is that Tuberville holds a lead of around 8 or 9 percentage points over Jones.

"Can [Jones] close the gap? I don't know," Maxwell said. But she said there was one way that he could increase his chances of doing so: "If you have Obama-level turnout of African-Americans."

Specifically, Maxwell said, Jones needs to get more Black men supporting him in this election than he did in 2017. She noted that Black women turned out extremely strong for Jones in the special election where he beat Moore, so much so that they provided his margin of victory.

"They were his largest group of voters, period," despite the fact that Blacks overall comprise just around 27% of the state's population, Maxwell said.

About 98% of Black women who voted in the special election voted for Jones. Black men overwhelmingly voted for him as well, but by 6 percentage points fewer than Black women.

Even with more Black voters, Jones would need help on several other fronts, Maxwell said.

One area is with voters who tend to vote for whoever already is in office.

"Incumbency is usually worth a couple of points," she said.

The Covid-19 factor

Another area where Jones might be able to pick up some votes is among white women who would normally vote for a Republican.

Maxwell said the Covid-19 pandemic "is wearing on parents in general" but particularly among mothers.

Exasperation with the persistence of coronavirus during Trump's tenure could push some of those women to vote for Jones, she suggested.

The pandemic also could help Jones in another way, by sparking an explosion in the number of voters effectively voting early by casting absentee ballots.

Alabama does not technically allow early, in-person voting, as a number of other states do, particularly in light of concerns about the virus.

But Alabama loosened restrictions on the requirements for getting an absentee ballot this year, allowing people that ballot if they are worried about the danger of coronavirus by going to vote in person on Election Day. Before this year, people had to swear that they would not be physically in their town during Election Day, or that they were sick or had to work during voting hours.

As of last week, 145,000 absentee votes had already been either mailed in or dropped off in person in Alabama, according to state officials.

That shattered, by more than 45,000 votes, the prior record for absentee ballots for an entire election cycle. Another 70,000 absentee ballots that were requested by voters have not yet been sent back, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill told the Associated Press.

Maxwell noted that "we don't know the partisan breakdown" of the absentee ballot voters.

But, "nationally, it's definitely higher among Democrats," she said.

Conversely, she said, if coronavirus concerns depress turnout on Election Day among Republican voters, along with the fact that some people might think there is no need to vote for Trump because of his near certainty in winning the state, that could benefit Jones.

'He's still likely to lose'

David Lublin, professor and chair of the Department of Government at American University's School of Public Affairs, said Jones is "running a good campaign ... frankly, he's making it closer than it ought to be" given the political landscape in Alabama.

"He can do everything right, he can run a great campaign, and he's still likely to lose," Lublin said.

Lublin said a major problem for Jones is that "the demographic changes that are benefiting Democrats elsewhere" in the South "are happening to a lesser extent in Alabama."

He said that Alabama is not growing at the same fast rate as Texas or Eastern coastal states.

"They've not had that massive wave of suburbanization," Lublin said.

He contrasted Jones with Jaime Harrison, the Democratic nominee for the Senate in South Carolina, who is threatening to unseat the Republican incumbent, Sen. Lindsay Graham.

"What's going to happen in South Carolina ... is what happened earlier in North Carolina and Virginia," Lublin said.

"You see the growth of a lot of suburban whites" who tend to vote Republican at a lower rate than rural whites, Lublin said.

"There just isn't as much of that change in the electorate in Alabama," he said.

"It is hard to see" Jones winning "unless there's massive Black turnout and white turnout is low," Lublin said.

Lublin noted that Jones had "barely beat" a tainted Moore and is now facing a challenger who does not have Moore's baggage.

Maxwell said that even if Jones does lose, he could help Democrats in the long term by making the race close.

"If Jones holds close in red-state Alabama in a general election cycle when he is running against a football coach with all the name recognition in the world, that's still a pretty good story," Maxwell said.

Such an outcome "would show it's theoretically doable" for a Democrat to win a general election in Alabama, she said.