SELMA, Ala. — Doug Jones’ hunt for votes took him over the Edmund Pettus Bridge and into Selma’s annual Christmas parade Saturday, seeking to energize his most important bloc of supporters in Alabama’s special Senate election: African-Americans.
Jones’ visit to a civil rights movement landmark epitomized his strategy in the final days of the Alabama race. Jones simply cannot win without African-American voters flooding to the polls on December 12, when he faces scandal-plagued Republican Roy Moore and hopes to become the first Democrat in years to win a statewide race in Alabama. Turnout for the unusual special election is uncertain and there are fewer traditional swing voters available here than other states, laying even more importance on the Democratic base.
Jones is leaning on his own civil rights record as a federal prosecutor and emphasizing education to maximize support from black voters. But years of Democratic losses have weakened voter interest and atrophied the state party, which is also riven by conflict between the different factions that remain. That has forced Jones to build a coalition almost from scratch in the last few months, leading some to criticize Jones for starting black outreach too late.
“The challenge that Doug has — that most Democrats have — is that there is no party infrastructure … to organize voter turnout other than local Democratic parties,” said Mark Kennedy, a former chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party. “So Doug, unfortunately, is probably on his own when it comes to Election Day.”
Recent polling has emphasized the significance of the black vote. The latest poll from the Washington Post showed Jones with a narrow 3-point lead over Moore and an electorate that was more than one-quarter African-American. The previous survey out last week, an automated poll from Emerson College, showed African-Americans as just 17 percent of the sample — and had Moore up by 6 points.
That’s why Jones has spent many of his days leading up to December 12 in the same way as he did in Selma on Saturday: shaking hands, kissing babies and hugging as many voters as possible in a predominantly African-American crowd. The night before, Jones held a fish fry at a Montgomery church and delivered a well-practiced stump speech about the importance of health care and the economy, as well as his prosecution of Ku Klux Klansmen who years earlier had bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963, and a tribute to civil rights icon Rosa Parks.
“I’m especially excited to end this day, December 1, in Montgomery, Alabama,” Jones told the crowd. “The place where the civil rights movement truly began with one heroic seamstress who would not give up her seat. And Rosa Parks changed not only Montgomery, she changed Alabama, she changed the country, she changed the world. It started out here. I’m very humbled and honored to have played a part in the civil rights saga, if you will, many years after the fact.”
Jones’ outreach has only recently hit top gear, according to African-American leaders in the state. Jones’ campaign had to navigate rifts and competition between the Alabama Democratic Party and other Democratic groups — including the Alabama New South Coalition and the Alabama Democratic Conference — as it got organized this fall. The final-month allegations of sexual misconduct against Moore also lent new urgency to what had previously been seen as a very long-shot campaign for Jones.
“I was very concerned early on that too few efforts were being made to organize and mobilize the black vote,” said Alabama state Sen. Hank Sanders. “But there are certainly more efforts in the last week or so.”
Faya Rose Toure, the lead activist with the Alabama New South Coalition, said she’s directed her team’s efforts as part of its “Vote or Die” campaign to focus on Alabama’s “Black Belt” region in the final few weeks of the campaign. Alabama’s black vote is concentrated in its biggest cities, but there is also a sizable share in smaller counties like Selma’s, which is two-thirds African-American.
“At the last minute we had a situation where there were hardly no resources in the Black Belt for Doug Jones’ campaign and now two weeks before they put resources here,” Toure said, adding that now Democrats have finally come in to help. “They do have people on the ground here. But it’s just so limited.”
Jones has largely eschewed help from national Democrats, preferring to keep the election about Moore and avoid chances to tie him to Washington liberals. But he has appeared multiple times with Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, the civil rights icon. Former South Carolina state Rep. Bakari Sellers, another African-American Southern Democrat, flew in to introduce Jones at his recent Montgomery fish fry.
Jones has cleared one key hurdle with voters: Lavernia Willoughby, a parade-goer in Selma, said she believes the Democrat can defeat Moore. Jones’ stronger-than-usual polling numbers and Moore’s misconduct allegations have inspired hope in some black voters that they could help a candidate win statewide for the first time in years.
“All we gotta do is vote,” Willoughby said, adding that Jones “needs everybody to vote for him. He needs everybody to come out and vote for him.”
But not every black supporter on Saturday was as optimistic. Chevonne Norfleet said she plans to back Jones, but she paused and conceded worries about Jones’ chances as she stood outside a barbershop.
“Maybe in the black people’s eye,” Norfleet said. “It’s a Republican state.”