Senior Senate Democrats wary of wasting resources in deep red Alabama might be forced to reconsider after fresh polling showed Doug Jones competitive with Republican Roy Moore in a December special election.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee was evaluating whether to invest in the race after Roy Moore, a fiery social warrior twice kicked off the Alabama Supreme Court for nullifying federal court rulings, defeated Sen. Luther Strange in a special GOP primary runoff.
Moore led Jones 50.2 percent to 44.5 percent in a poll released Friday by Decision Desk HQ, in line with the 52 percent he scored in 2012 when he was last elected statewide, to lead Alabama's high court.
Sources say that Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., is worried about getting sucked into a campaign money pit that appears winnable but reverts to partisan patterns, as happened to the Democrats in the special election for Georgia's 6th Congressional District.
But if Jones remains within striking distance even after the expected Republican attacks ads start airing, the progressive base may demand heavier involvement. The DSCC has staff on the ground in Alabama to help Jones, but for now its participation is limited to providing logistical support to his campaign.
"Competitive means different things to different people," said John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster with offices in Montgomery, Ala. He was realistic about Jones' prospects but said it was too early to write him off. "I think it will be more competitive than the expectations in D.C."
American Bridge, the Democratic group that focuses on opposition research, was expected to deploy a tracker to Alabama to tail Moore looking for damaging rhetoric that could be used against him or other Republicans.
Strange was appointed to the seat in January after popular Republican Jeff Sessions resigned to become U.S. attorney general. Ousted by Moore in the Sept. 26 runoff, the senator will relinquish his seat to the winner of the Dec. 12 special election with Jones, a Birmingham attorney.
Moore has an enthusiastic, loyal following, and President Trump is popular in Alabama.
But by the standards of this overwhelmingly conservative state, Moore is a weak general election candidate. His provocative views on social issues and plus his fights with the federal courts concern mainstream Republicans.
Some Democrats believe this gives Jones a chance for an upset that he wouldn't exist if Strange had won the runoff. There are GOP voters who agree.
"I won't vote for Moore — ever," said Jack Burnette, a 61 year-old financial planner from suburban Birmingham. "I wouldn't vote for Roy Moore for dog catcher."
Opinion Savvy conducted the new poll for Decision Desk HQ, a nonpartisan group that conducts exit polling of elections. It surveyed 590 likely registered voters during the two days following Republican runoff. It had an error margin of 4 percentage points.
But Democrats are going to want their own data. In the campaign for Georgia's suburban Atlanta 6th Congressional District earlier this year, public polling showed a competitive race throughout and the Democratic nominee, Jon Ossoff, raised record amounts of cash, only to lose by 4 points.
The DSCC and Senate Majority PAC, the super PAC aligned with Schumer, are taking steps to gatherer their own data so as to determine how much attention the Alabama special election warrants. Influential liberal advocacy groups based in Washington are participating in those discussions.
Democrats are defending nine Senate seats in states won by Trump last year, and have to be judicious with their money. The DSCC declined to comment for this story. The Jones campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
The Alabama Democratic Party is moribund, so the major resources for Jones beyond what his campaign raises are going to have to come from the national party.
There are a couple of strong African American political organizations in the state that could be helpful — if the Democrats in Washington jump in, said Joe L. Reed, who leads of one of those groups, Alabama Democratic Conference.
The ADC has a presence in all 67 counties and is positioned to pound the pavement turning out African American votes for Jones, whom the group endorsed. The group stands ready to get the work, but Reed said that maxing out turnout among African Americans, the core of the state's Democratic base, wouldn't be enough.
The Jones campaign will not win without substantial support from white voters, and that's going to require resources and organization that, with the poor condition of the state Democratic Party, does not exist.
"We can turn out all the black votes you want," Reed, chairman of the ADC, said in a telephone interview. "But somebody's got to talk to the white voters; it's not our challenge to do that. We can talk to everybody, but white voters got to hear from white folks."