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Should the Democratic Party Roll Into Alabama?

With a strong Senate candidate and an extremist Republican opponent, the party is wrestling with how much support to provide in the deep-red state.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Democrats are getting their hopes up again over a special election in a red state. Alabama Republicans on Tuesday backed Senate candidate Roy Moore, a former chief justice of the state Supreme Court who believes in criminalizing homosexuality, barring Muslims from Congress, and many other vicious and hateful things, over the establishment pick, Senator Luther Strange. “Moore wouldn’t be the most radical figure ever to serve in the Senate,” Mother Jones reporter Tim Murphy wrote, “but as a theocrat he has few peers.” His extremism has Democrats from Birmingham to Washington, D.C., wondering whether they might be able to pull off an upset in one of the most conservative states in the country, stealing a key Senate seat that until recently was occupied by right-wing Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The Associated Press reports that Democrats “see an opening, even if it’s a narrow one,” after nominating an Alabama lawyer of their own, former U.S. attorney Doug Jones. He’s most famous for winning convictions against Ku Klux Klan members who murdered four black girls in the Birmingham church bombing of 1963. “It’s a stark moral choice” between him and a lawless bigot like Moore, said Ben Wikler, Washington director for the progressive group MoveOn. “We see this race as a key crystallization of what the country should stand for and the kind of extremism the country should reject.” Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez told Washington Post reporter David Weigel that he’s “never seen a clearer contrast between candidates.”

But even as MoveOn and other progressive groups like End Citizens United are throwing their weight behind Jones, national Democrats are taking a wait-and-see approach to investing resources in the race. “The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, tasked with defending 10 incumbent senators in states won by Trump last year, has monitored the Jones race and advised on staffing—but has not yet committed resources to the race,” the Post reported on Wednesday. “The DNC has done a bit more for Jones, sharing the latest voter file with his campaign and helping him add staff after the primary. Former vice president Joe Biden, who has known Jones since the 1990s and encouraged him to make a run, recorded a robo-call for his primary bid and plans to return to Alabama on Oct. 3 to stump for him. American Bridge, a progressive opposition research group, prepared a 21-page memo of research to help Jones and other Democrats target Moore.”

Thursday brought more signs of trepidation. One Democratic senator told Roll Call reporter Bridget Bowman that the party is approaching the race “skeptically.” They know it’s an uphill battle, and some worry that too much visible involvement by national party players could turn off voters in such a deep-red state. “We will each be tied to those [national party] platforms,” Moore campaign chairman Bill Armistead told Bowman. “I think it’s going to be something very clear to distinguish between conservative Republican Roy Moore and liberal Democrat Doug Jones.”

This raises a familiar conundrum for the Democratic Party as it tries to compete in conservative territory under President Donald Trump: Making it competitive will require heavy investment from outside Alabama, where the state party is weak. But that investment will further nationalize the campaign when Jones desperately needs to be seen as independent of the national party. “Outside of about ten states along the Acela Corridor and the West Coast, the Democratic brand is mostly lousy,” said Jim Kessler, co-founder of the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way. “It’s an unfortunate fact of political life that if you have a ‘D’ next to your name in most places in the country you will pay a price as a candidate.”

Kessler, a former aide to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, acknowledged that this dynamic would hold whether or not Jones received support from the party, and yet he proposed that Jones “convince voters that he’s a different type of Democrat.” If I were him I wouldn’t take Party money and I’d make a show of it,” Kessler said. “He should be able to raise enough money from grassroots support to finance his campaign anyway. The winner in any contested race is the candidate who seems most independent from their party.”

Other Democrats and progressives disagree. “The GOP will try to cynically attack Doug Jones no matter what anyone does,” Wikler said. “It would be ridiculous to unilaterally disarm in the face of that kind of cynical attack.” Former U.S. Representative Artur Davis, who served Alabama’s Seventh Congressional District from 2003 to 2o11, told me, The race is already nationalized. We’re living in an era where, no matter what state you live in, your primary reference point is national politics.” He said Jones doesn’t have a choice but to take national Democratic money. “Doug Jones needs to raise more money than any Democratic candidate in his lifetime has raised, and Doug Jones is 63 years old,” he said. “He can’t be picky and choosy about where it comes from.” Besides, strategist Stan Greenberg told me, “I don’t think there’s any point in trying to tamp down the fires of interest in being engaged.”

This seems to square with the Jones campaign’s thinking. “I’m sure we’ll take all the help we can get,” Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, a Jones advisor, told Bowman. “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.”

Strategist Lis Smith sees “no downside to investing in the race if it looks like there’s a shot at winning it,” adding, “It will not help him to try to conform to any national Democratic or liberal litmus test.” She suggested that the Jones campaign distance him from the perception of what a national Democratic is” and “run away early.” If he does, Smith thinks Moore’s extremist positions provide a real opening. “I worked for Claire McCaskill in her first Senate race in 2006,” she said. “I remember in 2012 when Democrats left her for dead. Then Republicans nominated Todd Akin, who hung himself with his very extreme, outside-the-mainstream comments about ‘legitimate rape.’ It’s safe to say that Todd Akin looks like a Rockefeller Republican compared to Roy Moore.”

True though that may be, Smith acknowledged that Alabama is much more conservative than Missouri. Davis, the former congressman, pushed back on the Akin comparison. “I certainly would not underestimate Roy Moore’s strength,” he said, “nor would I under estimate the conservatism of a significant number of Alabama voters.” Kelvin Datcher, who was Senator Bernie Sanders’s Alabama state director in last year’s Democratic primary, told me,“Roy Moore is a very, very popular guy.” And as exciting as the prospect of defeating him appears this week, he cautioned, “It could also be fool’s gold.”

“In many ways, Doug Jones is a dream candidate,” Datcher said. “He’s not a politician, he’s an Alabama guy, and of course he made his name prosecuting one of the worst crimes in the history of Alabama, if not this country.” But he also warned, “If Democrats came to Alabama and ran a really loud campaign with lots of money, as a big priority, would that rally the other side locally and nationally? I think it would.” Investing money is one thing, but, he said, “There’s no need for national Democratic political figures to come to Alabama.” He even sounds uneasy about former Vice President Joe Biden’s plan to campaign with Jones next month. “It’s probably not a horrible idea at this moment,” he said, “because you might want to spark some excitement among Democrats. But in the long term this has to be about Doug and his vision for Alabama. It cannot be about celebrities from the outside getting engaged.”

Kessler thinks the key with surrogates is to “have independent-minded Democrats come to the state, not those seen as party regulars.” He said “Joe Manchin as a visitor to Alabama makes complete sense to me. He’s a senator. He’s a Democratic senator. He’s even in leadership, but he’s clearly a different type of Democrat.” That could be said of the former vice president. Biden fits well in Alabama,” Nancy Worley, chair of the Alabama Democratic Party, said.There are some people who probably understand the south better than others.” Worley said she didn’t know which other national party leaders would be appearing for Jones: I do not have any list of names. If you burned me at the stake I couldn’t give you a list of names, because I don’t have one.” But she said the state party will want surrogates to “show southerners that the Democratic Party is very diverse, and you don’t have to pass a litmus test to be part of the Democratic Party, and we do have a very mixed groups of people.”

Worley does have one worry about outside Democrats getting involved in the race: condescension. “We don’t need people saying, ‘We know how to do it so much better than you do,’” she said. “I don’t know that we need people calling our voters saying, ‘Y’all are stupid to have those people in there’.... It doesn’t really get you anywhere in electing a new person to trash what you had in the past.” Changing the state’s politics will require work and patience. “I’m the first woman chair of the party,” she said. “We’ve already made some change, okay?”