WASHINGTON — As a Democratic senator from Alabama, Doug Jones knows he is "the closest thing to a unicorn that exists in this country."
But he'd like to see more unicorns — or at least Southern Democrats — in Congress, and he's not alone as his party eyes a comeback this year in a region they once dominated.
On Tuesday, Jones laid out his recipe for success at a conference in Washington hosted by the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank.
Jones urged Southern Democrats to stick to "kitchen table issues," build coalitions broad enough to welcome everyone from moderate Republicans to African-American liberals, and to resist the temptation to pretend you're something you're not, because "authenticity is the most important thing that a candidate can have."
Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.
"If the only commercial you can cut is me walking out of church with a gun, I'm going to fire your ass," Jones said he told his consultants at the outset of his campaign.
Jones ran not just as a Democrat, but a mainline liberal Democrat and was able to win Alabama, a feat even given the unique weakness of his Republican opponent, Roy Moore.
He offered a reminder of that Tuesday as he came out against President Donald Trump's nominee to be CIA director, Gina Haspel, even as some of his red-state colleagues are supporting her. Haspel appears to have enough votes to succeed.
It helped, Jones said at the Center for American Progress gathering, that he had "more than just talk" to run on, pointing to his work prosecuting the Klansmen who bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963, which became a central part of his introduction to voters.
He also stressed the importance of having a diverse staff in a region where Democrats are largely African-Americans.
Inspired by Jones, changes in the South and the national anti-Trump sentiment, Democrats think they can win back some ground in the region that was once their regional base.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who leads the Democratic Governors Association, told NBC News that the party sees a rare opportunity win Southern states this year, noting that governors can separate themselves from the national party in a way congressional candidates often find harder to do.
"All of the objective evidence suggests we can be competitive in places we never have before," he said, pointing to Jones' victory as a prime example.
Democrats, for instance, think they have a chance this year in governors' races in states like Tennessee, Oklahoma, Georgia and South Carolina. And they already control the governorships in Louisiana and North Carolina, thanks to upset victories in recent elections.
"We're committed to compete in these places, we're committed to competing everywhere," Inslee said. "If the brass ring's coming around on the merry-go-round once every 25 years, we want to make sure we grab it."