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BIRMINGHAM, Alabama—Wally Vandergrift of Birmingham is a lifelong Democrat. “I’m a real anomaly in the state of Alabama, believe me,” he told me on Saturday. And for the “first time in a long time,” he said, “I feel hopeful about this one.”
Vandergrift was talking, improbably enough, about the special Senate election to fill Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ old seat. And he’s not the only Democrat in the state—or nationally—allowing himself to feel a twinge of optimism. Vandergrift and I were talking in Saturn, a new-ish Birmingham music venue where Democratic Senate candidate Doug Jones was hosting a rally ahead of Tuesday’s primary with special guest Tim Ryan, the Ohio congressman who unsuccessfully challenged Nancy Pelosi for the Democratic leadership in December. Ryan wasn’t the first national political figure to take note of Jones that week. Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights legend, had endorsed Jones several days earlier. And on Friday, an old friend of Jones, former Vice President Joe Biden, endorsed him too.
When I asked Ryan why he had come to campaign for Jones, he told me that he’d been reading about the race over recess, found himself intrigued by the opportunity of a deep-red pickup, and was impressed by Jones’ record. As a Clinton-appointed U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, Jones successfully prosecuted Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry, two Ku Klux Klan members involved in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four girls but had never faced justice.
Jones, who had worked for Alabama’s last Democratic senator, Howell Heflin, had considered running at the height of his acclaim in 2002—the first re-election race for Heflin’s successor, Jeff Sessions. But the 9/11 attacks, he told me in an interview in his office on Friday, had “changed the dynamics” of that race. He left politics to raise his family and entered private practice, he said, to “make a little money.”
In the years since, the Alabama Democratic Party, as a statewide force, has had little to no success.
“We have conceded too many races,” Jones told me. When I asked him if there was any Democratic Party infrastructure in the state, his response was “none.” But still, he told me, “we think this can be a transformational race.”
The cautious optimism among Democrats is in large part a reaction to the embarrassments the statewide Republican Party has brought upon itself of late. Since the beginning of 2016, the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Roy Moore—now the leading candidate in the GOP Senate primary—was removed from his position; the speaker of the state House, Mike Hubbard, was sentenced to jail for violating state ethics laws; and the governor, Robert Bentley, resigned amid a sex scandal and misdemeanor campaign finance violations. A couple of months before his resignation, Bentley had appointed the state attorney general who was investigating him, Luther Strange, to temporarily fill Sessions’ seat. The murky circumstances of that appointment have haunted Strange’s special election primary campaign. That race, between Moore, Strange, and Rep. Mo Brooks, hasn’t been flattering for the party, either, as candidates have jockeyed to portray themselves as closest to President Donald Trump and trashed one another in endless television ads. (“They all dropped their pants, and what I saw was not very appealing,” is how Gottfried Kibelka, a Democrat from Birmingham, described the Republican primary to me at the Jones rally.)
Still, a Democratic victory in Alabama is a huge long shot. But that seems to be part of the appeal.
“I came down here because there’s an opportunity for us to send a bomb into the political world,” Ryan said at the rally. “An absolute bomb in the political world. If we can win this seat in Alabama—and I believe Doug is our best shot to be able to win this—we will rock Washington, D.C.”
The only problem for Jones, and the national party that’s pulling for him, is that first he needs to win the primary on Tuesday.
There’s a funny story about that.
* * *
It is hard to build name recognition in a state primary, but Jones, given his fame as a prosecutor, should have expected to enter the Democratic race with the most. Unfortunately for Jones, he’s running against a man named Robert Kennedy. He goes by “Bobby.”
The Alabama press has dubbed Kennedy a “mystery candidate.” No one in Alabama politics knew him when his mailed-in registration form and check materialized a few months ago, and a lot of Democrats still don’t.
“That’s hilarious,” Jones said of his reaction when he heard that a man named Robert Kennedy had entered the primary. “I knew it wasn’t Robert Kennedy,” he said, “so I thought, ‘OK, somebody’s just trying to capitalize on their name.’ ”
And doing a fine job of it. The sparse polling in the race has shown Kennedy leading in two polls, with 49 percent in one and 40 percent in another, to Jones’ 28 and 30 percent, respectively. The primary on Tuesday will go to a runoff in September if no candidate reaches 50 percent.
I asked Jones when he first recognized that Kennedy, with his “name recognition,” might be a real competitor.
“I don’t think he is,” Jones said, adding that he doesn’t consider the polling to be “valid in any way.”
So he’s not concerned about him at all?
Immediately after saying he had no concerns about Kennedy’s numbers, Jones casually segued into dropping morsels of opposition research. Kennedy is a “guy who I’m not even sure lives in Alabama. I mean, his home, and his property, is really in Oakland, California, where his wife works,” he said. “And he’s still the kind of ‘mystery man’ because he won’t tell anyone what he does for a living.”
* * *
I met Robert Kennedy on Sunday afternoon at a restaurant in Mountain Brook, a suburb of Birmingham. He and his wife, Aqualyn, came in together, with no staff. Kennedy’s based near Mobile, on the Gulf Coast, but came up to Birmingham to do interviews. He laughed about how all of these national reporters (like me) had begun reaching out to him once they learned that there was a guy named Kennedy foiling Jones’ best-laid plans. Though he concedes that he’s “absolutely” getting a polling bump from the name, he said that when he reached the 40s in polling and observers still concluded that it was all just “name recognition,” that was insulting to the voters.
A 47-year-old originally from Prichard, Alabama, Kennedy, who is black, has been pitching himself as a “conservative Democrat.” Though his positions on most major issues are largely those of a mainstream Democrat—he wants to fix, not repeal, the Affordable Care Act; he is pro-choice but wants to “reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies though education and family-planning resources”—he described himself as a “Second Amendment purist.” He “leads with faith,” he said, which Democrats “don’t usually talk about.” A Naval Academy graduate (who went on to get an MBA from Duke), Kennedy argued that his status as a veteran ensures that no one can question his “patriotic credentials.” His theory is that by showing voters he’s a religious, gun-owning veteran, he can establish trust with enough independent and moderate Republican voters in Alabama to form a winning coalition with the (limited) Democratic base. He was quite proud of his three appearances on local conservative talk radio shows.
Kennedy and I had been having a very friendly chat for about 15 minutes when I asked him a simple question for which he has not given a clear answer throughout the campaign: Where does he live?
Kennedy became tense and cagey. He asked to go off the record. When we were back on the record, I asked him again where he lived. He lives in Prichard, he said, and explained that though he had left Alabama, he came back in 2011 to take care of his father, who has since died, and re-established residency in 2012.
Though Kennedy lives at least part-time in Alabama—certainly for the campaign—both his and his wife’s professional LinkedIn pages show them working in the Bay Area. And I confirmed, through the Alameda County Assessor’s Office, that he’s owned a home in Oakland, California, since 2015, along with the Alabama home that he inherited from his father. When I asked him what he did for a living, he said he worked for an “out-of-state company” remotely and did not elaborate. When a local reporter asked him where he worked in June, he said that “it’s not something I want to come out on now.”
That is not a very … tenable answer to the question of where the candidate is currently employed. If his showing Tuesday does reflect the polling, and he and Jones go to a runoff, Kennedy will face more scrutiny on a story that’s largely caught the press off-guard. And were he to reach the general election? One suspects that the national Republican political apparatus will be able to discover these and other facts about Kennedy, if it feels the need to.
Kennedy told me that Alabama Democratic officials were quite nice to him when he entered the race. “That positive encouragement and reinforcement lasted all the way until the first poll came out,” he said, which showed him leading Jones. It was after those numbers that Vivian Beckerle, chairwoman of the Mobile Democratic Party, told NBC News that “there’s suspicion that he’s here to bust up the vote and help secure the race for the Republicans.”
“As if the Republicans needed a strategy to win in the state of Alabama,” Kennedy said.
* * *
If Jones is right, and Kennedy’s strong numbers in early polls were merely an expression of voters not knowing any of the candidates at first and picking the only name that sounded familiar, he will head to a general election against any of three Republicans who carry serious baggage. This does not mean that winning a general election in Alabama against a Republican would be anywhere close to easy.
I asked Jones, in my annoying D.C., flyover-story way, what issues he would take a more conservative stance on to distance himself from the national Democratic brand to win in Alabama.
He didn’t really come up with any. Though his platform does include a call to “streamline regulations” on small- and medium-size business, it’s more focused on a handful that travel pretty well anywhere, like gradually instituting a living wage and expanding Medicaid. These are the “kitchen-table” economic issues that Ryan, Jones’ guest for the rally, has been preaching for the party to stay focused on “like a laser beam.”
“We’re not trying to trick anybody,” Ryan told me. “What we’re arguing is, through a guy like Doug … we’re talking about these issues that we can take to any corner of the state of Alabama and tell people why we’re better at this than [Republicans] are.”
As Ryan was closing his speech at the rally, he turned to a quote that he uses often at events like this to galvanize volunteers and supporters.
“Bobby Kennedy used to say this—” Ryan began. Someone in the crowd shouted out “No! No!” and Ryan caught himself, looked at Jones, and rephrased.
“A very famous politician used to say this … ”