The Democrats' Dixie Dilemma

Guest Write: James C. Pearce


James C. Pearce completed his PhD in 2018 at Anglia Ruskin University. Pearce has conducted research in the Russian Federation since 2015 on matters related to historical memory in the public space and education, the discipline of history as well as Russian foreign policy in the twenty-first century. He has taught Political Science, History, and International Relations at three institutions in the United Kingdom and Russia, and presented his research at multiple international conferences in two languages. James currently teaches in Moscow and is developing his research on the role of historical memory in Russian elections, and Russian students’ attitudes towards the new historical narratives. He is author to the recent book "The Use of History in Putin's Russia". We absolutely recommend you to check it out here.


Democratic Senator Doug Jones voted to impeach President Trump and against his Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanagh. He is pro-choice and prosecuted the KKK. He votes with Trump just 36% of the time. The Dilemma? He is from Alabama.

Ask most pundits, they say the writing is on the wall for Jones this November. The hart of Dixie (pun intended if you know the series), Alabama is a deeply conservative state. It has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1976. Prior to Jones' 2017 win, its last Democratic Senator was elected 25 years ago.

Alabama complicates the 2020 Senate map for Democrats who need to net three seats and the presidency to gain control of the Senate (four if Trump wins). Alabama is consistently rated as 'Leans' or 'Likely' Republican. If Jones loses, Democrats need to make gains elsewhere.

Yet, recent events may play into Jones' favour. A poll released today showed him in a statistical tie with his likely Republican rival. Trump's popularity here is also down by six points from his 2016 win to 56%. Make no mistake, Jones is the underdog, and concedes as much, but his path to re-election just got a little simpler. Jones is running for re-election in familiar territory and circumstances. His 2017 win was against the controversial former Judge Roy Moore. As well as troubling racial and religious statements, Moore was facing multiple allegations of sexual misconduct with teenage girls since the 1970s. Yet, before these allegations surfaced, topics dominating the airwaves surrounded race: kneeling for the anthem, police brutality and confederate monuments.

For a Democrat to win in the South, the black vote is imperative. And Jones is a former U.S. Attorney who made his name prosecuting the KKK for the Birmingham church bombings. Black women especially turned out in huge numbers to help push him over the line in 2017. However, Jones also needs to peel off enough white suburban voters, particularly women, most of whom are hesitant to vote for a Democrat. Forming this multiracial coalition can be a difficult needle to thread for Southern Democrats.

Jones' 2020 campaign slogan is 'One Alabama'. Many of his tweets include the slogan 'right side of history' when it comes to these cultural conundrums. This reference to Alabama's troubled racial past resonates sparks memories of George Wallace or the police brutality on the bridge at Selma. On actual policy, Jones sticks to what he calls 'kitchen table issues', avoiding hot button topics or controversies.

This message might work. First of all, he has one, but more importantly, positive candidates tend to win American elections. It is an inclusive message and hard to criticise. As is Jones' character. He is a mild-mannered man with a slight Southern drawl and not one to misspeak. Neither is he the type of Democrat who rubs people up the wrong way.

But he is still a Democrat in Alabama. The Democrats have a real image problem. It stopped showing up long ago, and its national conversations tend to ignore those kitchen-table issues or get bogged down on the taboo social issues. In so doing, the Democrats 'woke' themselves into a tight corner. Democrats used to be able to have a sensible discussion in conservative states without alienating voters; remember Bill Clinton's 'safe, legal and rare' remark about abortion? Well in 2020, clips of Senator Elizabeth Warren promising free abortions for transgender inmates adorn the internet. ***

The GOP believes this seat to be rightfully theirs and think a full embrace Trump is all they need do to win. One potential opponent is Jeff Sessions, who held this seat for twenty years before Trump tapped him for Attorney General, and the other is former Auburn football coach, Tommy Tuberville, who Trump has endorsed. He has not forgiven Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation. Tuberville is favourite to win, but Trump's endorsement is no silver bullet. In 2017, Moore lost the election and Luther Strange lost the Republican primary, both of whom received the President's endorsement. Tuberville could also struggle against Jones. For one thing, he is from Arkansas and his main residence is in Florida. For another, Tuberville has never been in any elected office before, and mostly retweets the President's positions. (A small but significant footnote are Alabama's two famous college football teams: Auburn and Alabama. They have a heated rivalry and fierce loyalty ties. Jones graduated from Alabama; the football factor could carry the day).

Last weekend it emerged that whilst a coach at Ole Miss in the mid-1990s, Tuberville was instrumental in having the Confederate flag banned from games. It was part of the university's effort to increase recruits of top black athletes and make games safer for supporters. He now walks a tricky line. Supporting moves to keep the names of Confederate soldiers on military bases risks alienating independent voters or moderate Republicans. If Trump wins Alabama with 56%, Jones only needs 5-7% of Republicans to split their ballot. Football plus a robotic inexperienced candidate who could stumble might just do it. *** Jones has quite a large war chest, out-raising both Republican challengers combined. He also has a large army of surrogates who came to campaign for him and will again. These included Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, Reps. Terri Sewell and John Lewis, and former NBA player Charles Barkley to get out the black vote. Not to mention recorded phone calls from President Obama.

For the moderate white suburban vote? That was Joe Biden; he was the only high profile white Democrat allowed to campaign with Jones in 2017, which further attests to the party's image problem in Alabama. This time, Jones also has the support of the most conservative Democrat in the Senate: Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

Certain trends across the South also work in Jones' favour. Democrats have won a handful of races here in recent years, and look competitive in others this November. Kentucky and Louisiana elected Democratic governors last year, Mississippi, Florida and Georgia almost did, and Virginia has now became a reliable state for Democrats. At least one Senate seat in neighbouring Georgia could flip, as could Georgia itself, along with North Carolina and its Senate seat. Moreover, if Biden picks a Southern black woman as his VP – and this looks increasingly likely – it would energise the black vote and Democratic base in Alabama.

We should not ignore the fact that several red-state Democrats managed re-election in 2018. Many even rebuke Trump publicly. One example is Jon Tester of Montana. Trump put a target on his back after sinking his nominee to lead the VA. Tester still won and votes with Trump around 30% of the time. By contrast, three who lost their 2018 re-elections (Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Claire McCaskill of Missouri) all made a point of voting more in line with Trump.

Of course, Alabama is different, but so is Jones. He does not pander to his state's conservative bend, nor to the left of his party. Jones has had a blockbuster two years in the Senate, voting on government shutdowns, Supreme Court nominations, impeachment and economic rescue packages following a pandemic. Though he does not seek the spotlight, it has found him constantly.

Jones may lose, but he deserves to be taken seriously. His low-key approach brings a real sense of moderation, calm and open-minded discussion to the Senate at a divisive moment in US history. Jones realises that change has to occur nationwide and is determined to be a positive part of that. If Jones does lose, a hypothetical President Biden needs an Attorney General. Jones' background fits perfectly with the times to succeed in this role.

Disclaimer: This article has not been edited by The Politician Independent Newspaper. To find out more, contact the newspaper here.

The Politician Independent Newspaper, created in 2020