Alabama Democrat Doug Jones is betting that his underdog bid for the U.S. Senate gets a boost, at home and nationally, from his role in convicting two Ku Klux Klansmen who killed four young black girls in the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church.
A former U.S. attorney under President Bill Clinton, Jones highlights the case with a new ad campaign that begins Monday, seven weeks ahead of his Dec. 12 general election matchup against Republican Roy Moore, the controversial former jurist who twice lost his state Supreme Court post for defying federal courts.
A 30-second television spot tells Alabama voters that Jones, 63, got “justice for Alabama” by successfully prosecuting two bombing participants four decades after they killed Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair, whose images appear in the ad.
“We’ve come so far since those dark days, but we still have a ways to go,” Jones, who is white, says in the ad. He concludes with an apparent swipe at Moore and an allusion to recent instance of racial violence around the United States: “It’s time, Alabama, to stand up for the Constitution, against violence and for unity.”
Yet just as the Jones campaign frames him as a latter day hero of the civil rights movement, another ad hitting Alabama airwaves this week tells voters the Democratic nominee is “deceptive and dangerous” because he supports “extreme” abortion rights.
That ad is financed by the Great America Alliance, a group aligned with President Donald Trump’s campaign architect and former White House adviser, Stephen Bannon.
The dueling spots show both the promise and the conundrum for Jones in a race that has Republicans and Democrats alike eying the narrow possibility of an upset in a state Trump won by 28 percentage points. Either Jones or Moore will take the seat held previously by current Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
The mere mention of a Democratic victory in Alabama owes much to Moore.
The evangelical populist worries Washington Republicans enough that they spent about $9 million trying to deny him the GOP nomination, and Jones has wasted no time framing Moore as an irresponsible figure. Moore was once ousted as state Supreme Court chief after flouting a federal judge’s order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state court building; after voters elected him again, he was removed for urging Alabama probate judges to ignore the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage.
Jones nonetheless has Democrats buzzing in his own right.
His successful prosecutions of Thomas Blanton in 2001 and Bobby Frank Cherry in 2002 are key pieces of his appeal, particularly to black voters who form the backbone of the Democratic base in the state and to Democrats beyond Alabama who are inclined to support Jones financially. Jones also touts his working-class upbringing in the mill neighborhoods of Birmingham’s now-decimated steel industry and hammers away on “kitchen-table” issues, trying to counter Trump’s economic populism and connections with white voters.
But to win any GOP converts, Jones must navigate the socially conservative leanings of Alabama’s majority and the state’s history of racially charged politics. A solid turnout among black voters, who make up about a quarter of Alabama’s electorate, is necessary for Jones to win, but it won’t be sufficient.
Besides the 30-second television spot, Jones’ campaign produced longer online spots that delve deeper into the bombing case. A digital campaign effort will target supporters with a three-minute video. A five-minute version was played for Democratic National Committee members gathered this weekend in Las Vegas, where it drew a standing ovation and moved some party leaders to tears.
The campaign declined to say how much it spending on the effort. Jones raised more than $1.3 million through Sept. 30, with about $1 million on hand heading into the final two months of the campaign. That’s enough for the “substantial buy” that his campaign describes, but not enough to keep it on air until polls open.
The longer versions feature Jones on a stage, recounting the case as a black-and-white slide show intersperses images of the carnage with snapshots of the four girls who died. Jones tells of his emotional interviews and court testimony with family members of the victims, including one father remembering that he identified his daughter’s body “still with a piece of mortar embedded right in the middle of her skull.”
The FBI in 1965 named four Klansmen as being responsible, but arrested none of them before closing the case in 1968. One perpetrator was tried and convicted in Alabama state court in 1977. Another died without standing trial. Jones reopened the case as U.S. attorney, eventually winning a 2001 murder conviction for Thomas Blanton, followed a year later with a murder conviction of Bobby Frank Cherry. Both men received life sentences.
Associated Press reporter Kim Chandler contributed from Montgomery, Alabama. Follow Bill Barrow on Twitter at https://www.twitter.com/BillBarrowAP .