BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Shaking hands and greeting diners at a popular lunch stop, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Doug Jones is hoping to persuade Alabamians to break a two-decade habit of voting Republican.
A day after Republicans picked firebrand jurist Roy Moore as their nominee, Democrats see an opening, even if it's a narrow one, for a rare Southern victory in a statewide election.
"We are at a very important point in our state's history where people are going to start looking seriously at issues" over party, Jones said Wednesday after greeting diners at Niki's West restaurant near downtown Birmingham.
Twice removed as Alabama chief justice chair after defying federal courts, Moore is polarizing among moderate voters even as he maintains a loyal following for his public display of the Ten Commandments and stand against same-sex marriage.
Moore, 70, and Jones meet Dec. 12, with the winner taking the Senate seat previously held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The question is whether Jones and national Democratic forces eager to help him can capitalize on Moore's weaknesses in a state where President Donald Trump remains popular and Democrats have been long marginalized.
Jones, 63, is a former U.S. attorney under the Clinton administration. He is perhaps best known for his successful prosecution of two Klansmen who killed four black girls in a 1963 church bombing.
In a state battered by globalization and where one in five people live in poverty, Jones says his focus will be on "kitchen table" issues from health care and education to outsourcing and aging parents.
"We're a poor state. Let's be candid," said Jones, who grew up in the working class neighborhoods of the Birmingham-area steel mill and now lives in the city's wealthiest suburb. "We're a state where people are working one or two jobs just to make ends meet. ... They are concerned about making sure they have a living wage."
Beyond Alabama, Democrats are optimistic about even a sliver of opportunity.
Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, argued Moore's history creates "a path to victory" even in "tough territory" where statewide Democratic nominees often fail to reach 40 percent in a general election.
"There's a reason Republicans spent millions of dollars trying to defeat Roy Moore," Van Hollen said, a nod to the Senate Leadership Fund, a Republican political action committee associated with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that shelled out $9 million on behalf of Moore's vanquished primary rival, appointed incumbent Luther Strange.
The Democratic National Committee also pounced on Moore as "the divisive candidate," and the national party already has sent fundraising emails to donors soliciting contributions that would be split between the DNC and the Jones campaign.
Van Hollen said he will defer to Jones on what other national help to offer.
National Democrats have fresh experience with their help being both a boost and an albatross for nominees in conservative territory. House candidate Jon Ossoff set fundraising records earlier this year in Georgia's 6th Congressional District but ultimately could not withstand a barrage of attacks casting him as a liberal tool of outside interests.
The last Democratic senator from Alabama was Howell Heflin, who retired in 1997, with Sessions succeeding him. Sessions and Sen. Richard Shelby have coasted in every Senate election since.
Jones didn't swear off national party aid and acknowledged that he's already getting an infusion of cash from individual donors outside Alabama. But he noted that Moore has benefited for years from a national fundraising base among social conservatives, including during his current Senate bid.
"I think that campaign is going to be built on glass houses," Jones quipped.
Trump, who endorsed Moore's vanquished primary rival Strange, told reporters Wednesday that Moore would "be a great senator and I'm very happy with that." The president said last week at a Strange rally that he thought Moore would have a harder time winning the general election against Jones.
After chatting briefly with Jones on Wednesday, Ann and George Wharton of Birmingham said they would vote for him after having backed Sen. Luther Strange over Moore on Tuesday.
"I don't like Roy Moore. He's a nut job," Ann Wharton said.
Now Jones needs more Whartons.
Tens of thousands more.
When asked about his chances in a state now dominated by the GOP, Jones recalled a time when people said a "Republican can't win" in the South.
"Times change. People change. The dynamics of the electorate change," he said.
AP reporter Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.
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