2017 U.S. Senate Race

Doug Jones’ Search for Common Ground: Jones Talks About His Intentions, His Opponent and His Route to the U.S. Senate


Doug Jones speaks to the press the day after winning the race for the U.S. Senate seat. (Source: Sam Prickett)

Dec. 13, 2017 — In his first press conference since being elected senator, Doug Jones reiterated his desire to find “common ground” on both sides of the political aisle and dismissed his opponent’s refusal to concede the election.

Jones defeated the twice-deposed Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore by roughly 20,000 votes Tuesday night, a surprise Democratic win in a state that for decades has been considered a Republican stronghold. However, Moore has not conceded the race, telling supporters that “when the vote is this close … it’s not over.”

Jones said he has no plans to reach out to Moore to ask him to concede. “I’m going to leave that to him,” he said. “I have not reached (out) and no one has tried to reach me (from Moore’s campaign). From my perspective, it’s as clean-cut as it’s going to get. I feel very confident.”

For the most part, Jones’ responses to reporters’ questions were conciliatory, stressing the need to find “common ground” — a phrase he repeated 12 times during the press conference — in the midst of a divisive political climate.

“I know I’m just sounding like a broken record (when I) talk about that,” Jones said, “but I just think it is so important that we try to sit down at a table and talk about issues and talk about the things that matter in the big picture … . I want to try to find those issues more and more that we can find common ground on, and let’s just agree to disagree on those issues that are so divisive that it’s hard to even talk to people about them.”

That sense of bipartisanship, Jones said, was reflected by congratulatory phone calls he received earlier in the day “on both sides of the aisle,” including from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, senior Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, outgoing Alabama Sen. Luther Strange and President Donald Trump.

The call from Trump, Jones said, was “very gracious.”

“He congratulated me on the race that we had won, he congratulated me and my staff on the way and the manner in which we’d handled this campaign and went forward, and we talked about finding that common ground to work together, and he invited me over to the White House to visit as soon as I get up there,” Jones said. “It was a very nice phone call, a very pleasant phone call.”

Jones refused to comment on the statements by Sen. Cory Booker, who while campaigning for Jones in Alabama called for Trump to resign over allegations of sexual harassment and assault.

“I’m not going to go there on this right now,” Jones said. “I thank President Trump for his call today, and I look forward, if he’s putting forth things that help the state of Alabama, for me to work with him.”

A Message for Both Political Parties

Jones characterized his election as proof “that people across this country want to see people work together,” which he said should serve as a message to members of both political parties. Jones said he won the election because he was a “center-of-the-road political figure.”

That desire to come across as centrist led his campaign to not rely too heavily on the national Democratic Party for fear of blowback from voters.

“Obviously there has been some concern locally,” he said. “We knew that going into this race, and we built this campaign from the ground up. … They provided the support that we needed, and they were always there to give us advice, (but) we wanted to make sure that this race remained local. …

“They knew they needed to be careful because we had a message, and they didn’t want to interfere, and I think that’s the thing I will compliment DNC Chairman Tom Perez the most about.”

“We had a message,” Jones added. “It was a message that was consistent with the party, but it was also a message that … we felt like would be consistent with the folks in the state of Alabama, and that’s what it was, so we stayed true to that message through the primary and into the general election … . I think that was a very important piece of winning this election. People in Alabama do not like to see folks that flip-flop. They want to see somebody who stays true to themselves because that’s somebody that they know that they can talk to, reason with and discuss (issues) with.”

Jones drew parallels between his campaign and that of newly elected Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, who campaigned for him in the days leading up to the election and was present at Tuesday night’s victory party.

“The campaign that Randall ran was also one of trying to be inclusive, and he was trying to reach out to people across the city,” Jones said. “It’s the same kind of campaign that we have done. I think Randall had approached this from the standpoint of, ‘Let’s try to find the common ground so that we can move this city forward.’ So it’s the way you approach the issues, I think, more than the result that you’re seeing in those issues that we had so much in common.”

“People do want to get away from just vitriolic political campaigning,” he added. “And that doesn’t mean you can’t talk about records, (or) you can’t be hard-hitting on certain things … . But I think people want to get away from it…. They want people to be treated with dignity, with respect.”

Did Jones Win, or did Moore Lose?

A reporter from Britain’s Sky News put one of the election’s major questions in blunt terms: “Did you win it, or did Roy Moore lose it?”

In the final month of the campaign, Moore was the subject of various allegations of sexual misconduct from women who said he had pursued them while they were teenagers, some as young as 14, and he was in his 30s. Moore, who was widely considered the frontrunner for most of the race, denied the allegations. He said they were part of a political attempt to malign his reputation.

It’s difficult to tell what impact the allegations had on voters. The Republican National Committee briefly pulled its support for the candidate before opting to back him earlier this month, and many national Republican leaders, including McConnell and Shelby, called for Moore to drop out of the race.

An exit poll from ABC News attributed Jones’ victory to the allegations — though several political analysts have provided other theories, including the strength of Jones’ candidacy, a strong turnout by African-Americans, or a growing wave of support for Democratic candidates nationwide.

“I think it’s a combination,” Jones said in response to the Sky News reporter’s question. “I think from what I saw on some of the exit polling last night, there was an overwhelming number of people who felt very positive, and the number one reason they voted for me was (because of) how they felt about our campaign and the issues we ran on.”

“But look,” he added, “there is that segment of this population who voted against Roy Moore. I understand. I get that. But you know what? That’s not a bad thing.”

Jones addressed the allegations against Moore, saying he believed America has reached “a tipping point” for women speaking out about such experiences. Moore’s accusers “have all the credibility in the world,” he said. “I’ve said before — I believe them.”

But would he have won without their accusations? “I don’t know if I would have or not,” Jones said. He added that Moore’s history — which included being removed from the Alabama Supreme Court twice for refusing to follow federal law — “disqualified him from this job to begin with.”

“I believed all along that we had a path to victory in this race,” Jones said. “I believed it this summer, and I certainly believed it as we were going forward because we were getting traction and momentum in our campaign before those allegations surfaced.”

“Just Flat-Out, I Knew You Were Wrong”

Jones also addressed the higher-than-expected turnout from African-American voters, to which some have attributed his win. Despite his reputation for prosecuting one of the bombers of the 16th Street Baptist Church, Jones was criticized for reaching out to that demographic. In particular, a flyer from his campaign featured the photo of a black man and read, “Think if a black man went after high school girls anyone would try to make him a senator?”  That, The Root called “racist adjacent.”

On the other hand, he also was criticized for not arranging enough get-out-the-vote activities in black communities, aimed at galvanizing voters.

But Jones said he never had any doubts that African-Americans would come to the polls for him.

“I didn’t read all you folks in the national media with that criticism because I knew you were wrong,” he said. “I mean, just flat-out, I knew you were wrong. I knew what we were doing. I knew that we had boots on the ground … . We knew the importance of minority voters, so we reached out, and I think they responded.”

Jones also said he had received support from leaders in the state’s African-American community. “Those leaders knew me and they knew my background, and they knew they would have a partner in the United States Senate,” he said. “And they felt like they haven’t had one in a while, except for Congresswoman Terri Sewell, who was also instrumental in making sure that they turned out.”

He also speculated that African-American voters, like everyone else, were voting because of a nationwide move away from political apathy. “People across the country are now realizing, you know, elections have serious consequences,” he said. “When you realize that, you tend to turn out the vote.”

Getting Seated

Jones can’t take office until the vote is certified, which the secretary of state said should be between Dec. 26 and Jan. 3.

Republicans in Washington worry what effect that will have on hot-button votes on the horizon. His taking office will reduce the Senate majority from 52 senators to 51.

McConnell has said Jones will not be sworn in until the end of the current session. The new session starts Jan. 3, and Strange, a reliable Republican vote, is set to remain in the seat until then. Strange was appointed to fill the seat after its previous occupant, Jeff Sessions, became attorney general.

Democrats in the Senate, including minority leader Chuck Schumer, have called on McConnell to seat Jones immediately.

But Jones’ approach to that growing debate is simple: wait and see.

“There’s a lot of moving pieces that involve the certification of this election, the recesses of the Senate, and how they’re going to go as we’re approaching the holidays. So, I think we’ll let that play out a little bit and see,” he said. “I think that both Senator McConnell and Senator Schumer are going to end up doing the right thing. I spoke to both of them today. They want to work with me and my transition team on committee assignments and those kinds of things. “So we’ll just see how it goes, and I’ll go with it either way. I want to get involved as soon as I can, obviously.”

CHIP and the Best Interests of the State

Though Jones’ press conference was short on specific policy points, he repeatedly mentioned the need for funding the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which Congress has not renewed. Jones called its funding “an issue that crosses political lines and crosses from one state to the other,” and urged his new colleagues to “take time out from whatever they’re doing right now (and) fund that program.”

“I’d like to be a part of that if it’s not done very soon,” he said.

For most issues, he said, he planned to vote in the best interests of Alabamians. “We’re going to take every issue one step at a time,” he said. “I want to sit down with folks on both sides of the aisle, both sides of an issue.”

Jones also said he would like to see an effort to increase voter registration, another issue he sees as bipartisan. “I’d like to make it easier for people to exercise their right to vote and I think we can do that over the course of time,” he said. “But in order to do that, it’s going to take people putting aside (the question), ‘How is this vote going to affect this political party or that political party?’ We need to be thinking about the right to vote for everyone… because that is so fundamental to everyone in this country.”

Next Steps

For the immediate future, Jones said this week he planned to “decompress with the family a little bit and try to get our heads around this.”

“I’ve got folks that we’re talking to that are my top people, my advisers, that have been with me, that are starting to make the calls and conversations with folks about starting to build a staff,” he said. “We’ll see how things play out with regard to certification and a swearing-in and try to move from there. So I’m just going to take a few minutes as we approach the holidays to try to spend a little time with the family, get my bearings back, and make sure that we go forward and let some other people do some work for me a little bit.”

Is he looking ahead to 2020, when he’ll have to run for re-election? “Oh gosh, no,” he laughed, pretending to check his watch. “What time is it? Hell, I just got elected last night!”

He paused. “I think this,” he said. “I think that if we approach 2020 like we approached 2017, I’ll be fine … . We’re going to take this one step at a time, and I’m going to make sure that I do the absolute best job I can for the people of this state, and the rest will fall into place.”