Democratic U.S. Sen. Doug Jones has the dubious distinction of being the most vulnerable incumbent seeking re-election in 2020. The only thing that had kept Jones out of the Toss Up column was the lack of a credible opponent. Now that GOP U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne has announced, this contest becomes the first to move into the Toss Up contest this cycle. This should be a relatively easy seat for Republican to pick up (think North Dakota 2018), but early indications are that they might make it harder than it should be.
Jones won a special election in December of 2017 to fill a vacancy created by the retirement of GOP U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions. Retaining this seat should have been an easy lay up for Republicans, but appointed U.S. Sen. Luther Strange faced 10 opponents in the primary, guaranteeing that no candidate would cross the 50-percent threshold necessary to avoid a run-off. In fact, Strange finished second with 33 percent behind former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, who got 39 percent; U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks placed third with 20 percent. In the run-off, Strange was portrayed as an establishment Republican while Moore campaigned as the true conservative and an ally of President Trump. Moore won the run-off and the nomination, 55 percent to 45 percent.
Moore has long been a controversial figure in Alabama politics. He was twice removed from his position as a Justice on the Alabama Supreme Court. During the general election campaign, multiple allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced, making him even more controversial. Moore’s growing unpopularity drove away suburban Republican voters and fanned turnout among African-American voters; they made up 29 percent of the vote, tying the record set in the 2008 presidential contest. He lost the race to Jones by 21,924 votes, 48 percent to 50 percent for Jones. That Moore only lost the race by two points is a testament to just how solidly Republican Alabama is.
While Republicans were trying to contain the crisis Moore’s nomination created, Jones breezed through the seven-way Democratic primary with 66 percent of the vote. Jones had never held political office and ran as a moderate outsider. Without a voting record, there wasn’t much else in his resume to serve as fodder for attacks, so he emerged from the race relatively unscathed.
In truth, Republicans lost this race more than Jones won it, an important distinction going into 2020. Trump carried the state in 2016 by 28 points, defeating Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, 62 percent to 34 percent. Republicans control all the levers of state government and dominate the congressional delegation, holding six of seven congressional districts. Turnout in a presidential year is going to look much different than turnout in the special election. If the special election was about Moore, the 2020 race will be about Jones.
The other big distinction between the special election and the 2020 race is that Jones now has a voting record. Republicans will make the argument that Jones has consistently voted with Democrats and often against the interests of Alabama voters. Exhibit A will be his vote against the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. Republicans are also likely to portray him as soft on the Second Amendment; Jones’ first speech on the Senate floor was on gun violence and the need for legislative remedies to reduce the number of gun-related deaths in America. Jones is an avid hunter and gun collector, but this may not be enough for many gun rights advocates.
Jones has spent his 14 months in the Senate focused on issues that will have an impact on Alabama’s citizens. He supported reauthorization of CHIP and has called for more funding for community health centers and expansion of Medicaid. He would also like to see more funds directed to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and for Internet access in schools. Jones has fought for tariff relief for autos and newsprint.
U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne is the first candidate to announce an intention to seek the Republican nomination, but he won’t have the field to himself. State Auditor Jim Zeigler has formed an exploratory committee, while U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, retired USMC Colonel Lee Busby, state Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, Secretary of State Jim Merrill, and U.S. Rep. Gary Palmer are all considering running. And, in the past week, Roy Moore has said he might run. Moore has been trying to clear his name and another Senate run may be part of that strategy. More’s son recently set up a super PAC, Conservative States of America. But, the NRSC is already on the record as ABRM – Anybody But Roy Moore. After the 2017 race, the odds of Moore winning the nomination are very slim, notwithstanding Jones’ efforts to goad him into the race.
Byrne, 64, was elected to represent the 1st congressional district in a special election in December of 2013, and has been easily re-elected. The Mobile-based district is the southwest corner of the state has a PVI of R+15, meaning that it votes 15 points more Republican than the nation as a whole. It is the least Republican of the six congressional districts the party holds. Before coming to Congress, Byrne practiced law. He served on the Alabama Board of Education from 1994 until 2002; he was first elected as a Democrat and switched parties in 1997. In 2002, Byrne was elected to the state Senate where he served until 2007 when he became Chancellor of the state Department of Postsecondary Education. He left that position in 2009 and returned to private law practice until he ran for Congress in 2013. Byrne made an unsuccessful bid for Governor in 2010, losing the GOP nomination in a run-off.
Byrne is viewed as a formidable challenger with support in the business community and a solid base of support within the party. He also starts the race with nearly $1.1 million in the bank as of December 31, 2018. (Jones had $2.13 million in the bank at the end of last year). Some of these qualities have conservative groups looking for another candidate because they think Byrne is too much a part of the establishment. The Club for Growth is touting U.S. Rep. Gary Palmer, a member of the House Freedom Caucus. But, conservative groups made the same argument about Strange in 2017 and the candidate they touted, U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, placed a distant third in the primary and then endorsed Moore in the run-off. As a result, conservative groups might not have a lot of credibility going into this race.
Moore’s potential candidacy aside, Republicans’ problem is the possibility of another crowded primary that will produce another run-off. Brooks, Marsh, Merrill, Palmer and Zeigler are all very credible candidates who would run competitive primary campaigns. Democrats would like nothing more than to see a crowded GOP primary and a bitter run-off that doesn’t produce a nominee until the summer of 2020, leaving Jones lots of space to raise money and put an organization into place.
Obviously, the contest for the GOP nomination has a very long way to go, but unless they manage to nominate a candidate who is as damaged as Roy Moore, Jones has to be considered something of an underdog in the general election.
Image Credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call