After Josh Crowley listened to Doug Jones’ interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd late last month, he took to Facebook and urged his friends to ignore the Senate hopeful’s pro-choice stance on abortion.
“Too many Christians look at just the issue of abortion in making their political decisions, but there is so much more that has the potential for legislation at the national level,” said Crowley, 27, a University of South Alabama student who describes himself as pro-life, and a Jones supporter. “I think it’s obvious that the abortion issue can really get in the way for any liberal candidates.”
Jones, the Democratic opponent of strongly conservative Roy Moore in the Dec. 12 Senate election, raised some eyebrows among political observers in Alabama and elsewhere after he said during the Todd interview that he would not support legislation to ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The U.S. House approved a similar measure,largely along partisan lines, which would make the practice illegal.
The Jones campaign, last week, doubled-down on the candidate’s pro-choice platform: “I support a woman’s right and freedom to choose what to do with her body. This is a decision between a woman, her doctor and her Lord. Who am I to tell a woman what to do with her body?”
Jones, in a statement, added, “I also support Planned Parenthood because they provide cancer screening, breast exams, contraceptives, prenatal care, and other vital, sometimes life-saving, services to hundreds of thousands of women. These are my beliefs.”
Jones’ statement underscores a vexing cultural issue conundrum for Democrats in Alabama, who haven’t won a statewide race in nearly a decade and haven’t occupied one of the state’s two Senate seats since 1992. But with Jones, many Democrats believe, they have a good opportunity of pulling an electoral upset over Moore, who is a far-right ex-judge twice booted from the bench for violating federal orders.
“Republicans have to make this election be about abortion and the national Democratic Party because they know that if his election is about their candidate, they stand a good chance at losing,” said state Rep. Craig Ford, D-Gadsden, the former minority leader of the Alabama House. “They see abortion as a way to keep moderate Republicans who are turned off by Roy Moore from voting for a Democrat.”
Abortion politics in Alabama seem to weigh heavily in the Republican Party’s favor. Alabama is one of the top states in the U.S. for voters who identify as Christians. Nearly half identify as evangelical Protestants – a group that largely consists of white and conservative-leaning voters.
According to the most recent Pew Research Center’s study, 58 percent of Alabama residents believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, while only 37 percent believe it should be legal. Only Arkansas (at 60 percent) and Mississippi (at 59 percent) have a higher percentage of residents who want to criminalize abortions.
Alabama’s statistics contrast with the national split over the issue, according to a Gallup poll taken in early May. But the same poll showed that 71 percent of Democrats call themselves “pro-choice,” the highest that statistic has been in at least 17 years.
Republicans, including Moore – the former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice who won last month’s GOP runoff against Senator Luther Strange, for the right to face off against Jones – are on the attack.
A Moore campaign spokeswoman, last week, said Jones’ comments are “the most liberal, extremist view” on abortion.
“Doug Jones’ views on abortion are way out of line on how a larger majority of Alabamians feel on the issue,” said Brent Buchanan, a Montgomery-based Republican strategist. “There is a strong contingent of people in our state which this is a make or break issue for them.”
Democratic supporters, however, are countering with appreciation toward Jones’ stance, which they believe is a “genuine response.
Zac McCrary, a Democratic pollster based in Montgomery, said he believes most Alabamians are “sort of the middle” of the issue, and while they support some abortion restrictions, they do not want government interfering in someone’s personal choices.
Ford, though, acknowledges the difficulty the issue poses for Democrats not only in Alabama, but elsewhere. He noted the differences between national Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, who support inclusion of pro-life Democrats into the party fold, and the National Democratic Party led by Chairman Tom Perez, who said in April that pro-choice is “non-negotiable” and shouldn’t vary by geography.
The abortion debate for Democrats comes ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, when the party defends a number of Senate seats in traditionally red states.
“The National Democratic Party has made it difficult for pro-life people to feel welcome in the party,” said Ford. “Most of the elected officials who have switched parties in Alabama over the last six or seven years have cited abortion as a key reason for leaving. It’s definitely a problem for Democrats in conservative states.”
Thomas Groome, a professor of theology and religious studies at Boston University, addressed the issue in a New York Times piece in March, when he blamed Democrat Hillary Clinton’s struggles nationally to the abortion issue.
“It’s almost like the Democrats have made it a litmus test to support Roe v. Wade,” Groome said, referring to the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case which gave women the right to choose whether to have an abortion during the first trimester. “To say ‘I’m supporting Roe v. Wade,’ that opinion is so dated now. Eighty percent of people don’t want to criminalize abortion, but a majority favors some sort of time limit (before receiving one).
Matthew Tyson, a marketing strategist and a member of the Calhoun County Democratic Committee, is a pro-life Democrat who has done research with Democrats for Life of America. But he, too, has faced backlash from other liberals and progressives who have told him that he has no place within the Democratic Party.
“The fact that Democrats put so much emphasis on abortion has to be one of the worst branding mistakes in the last 50 years,” he said.
He said a main reasons why groups he supports continue to work with Democrats is because of their platform – living wages, health care, better sex education, child care support, etc. – “goes a long way to address those ‘root causes'” which leads to women seeking an abortion.
“Outlawing abortion won’t make abortions go away, nor will it do anything to help women in a crisis pregnancy,” he said. “I believe we need to first attack the social pressures that would require a woman to abort in the first place.”
Tyson and Groome both believe that the issue could hinder Jones’ prospects at winning the Senate seat. Polls show that Moore has a 6 to 8 percent lead over his Democratic rival, representing a much tighter race than Moore had against his GOP rival, Strange. Most pre-election polls showed Moore with a commanding lead over Strange ahead of the Sept. 26 runoff.
“I can’t for the life of me figure out why Jones would put such a clear pro-choice stance at the forefront of his campaign,” Tyson said. “I think perhaps he’s putting too much faith in the ‘kitchen table issues’ approach, and hoping that Alabamians will put aside their differences on abortion to come together for jobs, education, etc.”
He added, “Most of the people Jones needs to win … for them, it’s a make or break issue, so you cannot come out with the traditional Democratic stance, especially in Alabama. His stance may not drive Republicans to vote for Moore, but it could encourage them to just stay home. He can’t afford that.”
Groome said Jones should focus more on effective social services that lead to a reduction in abortions, such as easier access to birth control. He noted that abortion rates continue to decline, reaching historic lows in 2013 and 2014, and researchers believe it’s due to improved contraception use. Unintended pregnancies declined from 2008-2011,after experiencing an increase from 2001-2008.
“When you deny people social services, the abortion rate skyrockets,” Groome said. “The Republican policies cause abortions and it is too bad Mr. Jones didn’t say that.”
Longtime political observers in Alabama believe that Jones has waded into a difficult political position in Alabama, where hot-button cultural issues can swamp economic messages during a campaign.
Steve Flowers, a former Republican member of the Alabama House who now writes a political column that appears in more than 60 newspapers around the state, said Alabama voters historically tend to be “driven by race and religion” whereas “most states in the country are driven by economic issues.”
Indeed, Jones’ platform has focused more on economic issues, the environment, and civil rights. Jones, in the early 2000s, led the successful prosecution of two Ku Klux Klan members for their role in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.
Jess Brown, a retired political science professor at Athens State University, said that Jones needs to maintain focus on economics. If social issues – such as abortion, same-sex marriage and gun rights – dominate the campaign, “then the Dems lose in Bama.”
William Stewart, a professor emeritus of political sciences at the University of Alabama, said that despite the recent massacre in Las Vegas, gun rights are likely not to rise to the top of social concerns during the Senate campaign. Instead, he said, abortion is likely to become a more discussed topic following the addition of conservative Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“With more Trump appointees on the Supreme Court, Roe v. Wade could be reversed or at least modified to allow states to put more restrictions on abortions,” Stewart said. “No matter what bread and butter issues (Jones) discusses, Alabamians will not be persuaded if they are reminded of Mr. Jones’ position on abortion.”
Quin Hillyer, a conservative columnist based in Mobile, said that Jones’ position on abortion is a problem for his candidacy.
“Because he has stated his position so openly, there is almost nothing he can say now that would lessen the political damage his stance causes him,” Hillyer said.
Flowers said he wouldn’t be surprised to see Moore ads targeting the issue, especially if the race tightens between the two around Thanksgiving.
“You have to respect his position,” Flowers said about Jones. “But I don’t think he’s in the mainstream of Alabama.”