- The biggest race left on the 2017 calendar is the battle to fill Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Senate seat in Alabama.
- The Democratic candidate, Doug Jones, is a long-shot. But he has a window of opportunity.
- Former Vice President is going to Alabama to campaign for him on Tuesday.
Perhaps the biggest race left on the political calendar should be a total long shot for Democrats. It comes in deep-red Alabama. In a race to fill the US Senate seat of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
But Republican nominee Roy Moore, the controversial twice-removed chief justice of the Alabama state Supreme Court, has provided an unlikely opening. Some Democrats — albeit hesitantly — believe that a small window has opened up for Doug Jones, the former US attorney and Democratic nominee, to pull off an unlikely upset.
And in a race where the Democratic Party’s brand is somewhat toxic to a large portion of the electorate that overwhelmingly voted in favour of President Donald Trump, one top Democrat is about to dive in head first.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, considered to be a potential 2020 presidential frontrunner, is set to stump for Jones at a Birmingham rally on Tuesday. The former vice president recorded a robo-call for Jones, a longtime friend.
As one Democratic pollster with Alabama ties told Business Insider, Biden is “the type of Democrat who can thread the needle and can appeal to blue collar, independent, kitchen table voters” while “at the same time, being someone who has the ability to energize core Democrats.”
“Biden might be one of the handful of Democrats who can come in and speak to both audiences,” said Zac McCrary, pollster for ALG Research and a former communications director for the Alabama Democratic Party. “I think that is a great choice. It is an advantage to have Vice President Biden in state to energize, hopefully raise a little bit of money, and to signal to everyone that Democrats are paying attention here.”
Biden’s appearance signals to locals that both Democrats and Jones are not alone in battling on what McCrary called “a ground zero for the political world for the next couple months.”
McCrary said Biden is among a group of Democrats who “can be helpful.” Other major names in the party, he said, “would be less than helpful if they came to Alabama.”
Steve Schale, a Florida-based Democratic strategist who worked on an effort to draft Biden into the 2016 presidential race, said the former vice president “made it pretty clear when he left office that he was going to … help elect Democrats at all levels of the ballot.”
“When it comes to Alabama, he’s remained active in places in the country where Democrats don’t normally go,” Schale said. “I don’t think he sort of looks at these things in the same calculus as everyone else. This is what Joe Biden does. I’m frankly glad he’s going. I think even if Doug Jones doesn’t win, this is exactly the kind of race around the country that shows the difference between the two parties right now.”
Schale said Democrats will have to win over at least 30 to 35% of the white vote in order to pull out an unlikely upset.
“And I think Joe Biden is one of the better surrogates we have” to help do so, he said. “Being able to talk in a language that can connect with the struggles of middle class families right now.”
Some recent polls have shown a tight race between Moore and Jones. One survey from Decision Desk HQ found Jones trailing Moore by roughly 5 points. But in an Emerson College poll prior to Moore’s primary victory over Republican Sen. Luther Strange, the former chief justice held a more than 20-point lead.
As a result, national organisations are waiting to see just how heavily they want to deploy resources. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is “closely monitoring the race,” an official told Business Insider. The organisation is “in ongoing communication or working closely with the Doug Jones campaign,” in addition to “providing strategic staffing and communications support.”
The Democratic National Committee, on the other hand, has shared its voter file with Jones and is assisting him with staffing, The Washington Post reported.
But Democrats who spoke with Business Insider say certain questions need to be answered before they deploy further resources. That includes figuring out why attacks against Moore from Republicans did not work. Strange, with the backing of the GOP establishment, outspent Moore by a 15-to-1 margin. Yet even as President Donald Trump rallied for and endorsed Strange, Moore was able to cruise to a substantial victory.
But optimism persists for Jones, who made a name in the state with high-profile prosecutions, including those of Ku Klux Klan members who bombed a black church and killed four young girls in 1963.
“Doug Jones is a fantastic candidate,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chair of the DSCC, according to The Post. “He has a real shot.”
McCrary, the pollster, said that the partisan makeup of the state would work against Democrats in any statewide election. But he said he believes this special election “has the potential to be different” and “a genuinely competitive race.”
“I mean, special elections are when surprises happen,” he said. “Doug Jones is an underdog, Scott Brown was an underdog in the Senate race in Massachusetts in 2009. John Bel Edwards, now the governor of Louisiana, was an underdog most of that campaign. … So I do think there are several factors that make this have the real potential to have a genuinely competitive race, which runs counter to some of the expectation.”
The most important factor is Moore, who McCrary pointed out has a history of underperforming other Alabama Republicans in statewide elections.
For example, in 2012, the last time Moore was on the ballot, he lagged significantly behind Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. That election came after Moore was removed from office. And, since, 2012, Moore has been removed a second time.
Moore also garnered a smaller percentage of the vote in 2012 than he got in 2000. As McCrary pointed out, Alabama became significantly more Republican in that 12-year span.
“In the time when Alabama shifted dramatically Republican, Roy Moore lost three or four points in his statewide share,” he said. “And I would say clearly the reason is because at that point he had been removed from office for violating the law. And now we have a second instance of that since 2012. I think Roy Moore is a bad candidate. He has a unique ability to alienate part of the Republican base [and] to alienate conservative leaning independent voters that no other Republican really has.”
Still, Jones is going to need to defy history to overtake a Republican in an Alabama race. No Democrat has won a Senate race in the state since Sen. Richard Shelby in 1992. Shelby, Alabama’s senior senator, switched parties in 1994 and has served as a Republican since.
Jones, the son of a steel worker who “put a lot of bad guys behind bars,” has “a lot of balls he has to keep in the air,” McCrary said.
“He has to introduce himself to wide swathes of the electorate, which are unfamiliar with him,” he said. “Doug Jones has to energize Democratic base that, especially we’re talking about an election a couple of weeks before Christmas, which is unorthodox, unconventional. And he has to find a way to appeal to some of these soft Republicans.”
Jones will also have to be able to activate Alabama’s Democratic base of black voters. As McCrary wrote in a Medium post, an Alabama electorate that is 28% black could push him over the top. That number equals what is typically seen for a presidential election, while midterm turnout tends to hover around 25%.
Schale, who said Jones will need “a pretty big lift” at the ballot box, said there is “recent history that the right Democrat” can win a major race in the South, pointing to congressional races in the 2006 and 2008 cycles.
And a high-profile appearance from Biden signals that there will be an attempt to climb such a mountain, even if other major Democratic players steer clear.
“I think Doug Jones is that kind of guy,” Schale said. “I still think it’s pretty uphill. Definitely uphill. It may not be Mt. Everest, but it’s probably still Denali.”
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