Democratic defector? Sen. Doug Jones could break with his party to back Trump at Senate trial

NBC News interviewed Alabama voters to find out what they think the freshman lawmaker, facing the re-election fight of his life, should do.
Image: Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., after a vote on Capitol Hill on March 14, 2019.
Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., after a vote on Capitol Hill on March 14, 2019. He hasn't said how he intends to vote in the trial of the president in the Senate. Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

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By Mitch Felan and Adam Edelman

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Doug Jones, the first Democrat elected to the Senate from Alabama in 25 years, is in grave danger of losing re-election next year, and the impeachment of President Donald Trump isn't making things any easier.

So it doesn't come as a surprise that Jones is being eyed as the Democrat most likely to stand with the president in Trump's coming Senate trial.

The reasons: He eked out a special election win two years ago against Roy Moore, who was hit at the end of the race with sexual misconduct accusations involving minors, by less than 2 percentage points; he represents a state that Trump won by almost 28 percentage points in 2016; and he faces a field that includes a couple of popular Republican rivals — Jeff Sessions, a former senator and U.S. attorney general, and ex-Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville, both of whom are leading him in the early polls. (Moore also is running again.)

And most voters in the deeply red state oppose impeachment, with 54 percent against and 39 percent in favor, according to a JMC Analytics poll.

Interviews last week with two dozen state residents suggest that Jones risks alienating at least part of his Democratic base if he votes to acquit Trump and that he would have a hard time winning over Republicans by backing the president. Many Republicans said they won't cast their ballots for him in November no matter which way he goes.

"Anyone who doesn't go for Donald Trump's impeachment just shouldn't be in office," said Rasif Ratani, 26, a student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He voted for Jones in 2017 but said he will consider not supporting Jones in November if he sides with Republicans in the Trump trial.

Jones, widely regarded as the Senate Democrat most likely to lose in 2020, says he's undecided on how he might vote in a Senate trial and suggested that he sees merits in the arguments both for and against conviction.

A supporter carries signs for Democratic Senate candidate Doug Jones outside a polling location in Bessemer, Ala., in December 2017.Nicole Craine / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

"I'm trying to see if the dots get connected," Jones said recently in an interview on ABC's "This Week." "If that is the case, then ... I think it's an impeachable matter. But if those dots aren't connected and there are other explanations that I think are consistent with innocence, I will go that way, too."

He has called for a "fair trial" with witnesses and documents that would show "all the facts" to the public.

Jones' office declined to respond to questions about his stance on impeachment and referred to the ABC interview.

Without mentioning any names, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., teased the notion that some on the other side of the aisle might join Republicans in voting to acquit Trump.

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"It wouldn't surprise me if we got one or two Democrats," McConnell told Fox News Channel earlier this month.

The Trump factor

Since he took office in January 2018, Jones has been forced to walk a tightrope between his own progressive positions and the conservative views held by voters in his state. He has voted to support Trump's position on Senate bills 34.5 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight.com's vote tracker — sixth most among all Democratic senators.

The mild-mannered Jones has in many ways made good on his 2017 campaign promises to bring back "common courtesy and decency" to politics, and he has largely shied away from being an attack dog against Trump. But he has also staked out a portfolio of liberal positions — including support for abortion rights, LGBTQ equality and gun control — that are considered politically high-risk in such a conservative state.

Fredericka Holifield of Bessemer, Ala., says she will support Sen. Doug Jones no matter how he votes in the Senate trial of President Donald Trump. 'We always have to see ... what's going to be best for us,' she says. Nicole Craine / for NBC News

Trump remains very popular in Alabama — 59 percent of voters approve of the job the president is doing, according to a Morning Consult poll in November, which is the president's second-highest rating in the country, behind only his standing in Wyoming.

Jones, in comparison, had a job approval rating of 41 percent in July through September, according to a Morning Consult survey, while 36 percent of respondents said they disapproved of the job he was doing.

Jones is among a small number of senators on both sides of the aisle who could buck their parties in such votes. Among the others are Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a Democrat from another very conservative state who hasn't shied away from supporting Trump at times; and Republicans Mitt Romney of Utah, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine. That trio of senators all declined in October to support a Republican resolution denouncing the House Democrats' impeachment inquiry.

On the minds of voters

Alabamians interviewed by NBC News splintered into three categories: Republicans who won't vote for Jones no matter what he does, Democrats willing to give him leeway to vote in Trump's trial however he sees fit and Democrats who backed Jones in the special election two years ago but said they would have to reconsider their support if he stands with the president and the GOP in the Senate.

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Fredericka Holifield, an African-American woman who is part of a key demographic that lifted Jones to victory in 2017, said she plans to support him again, even if he votes to acquit Trump.

"Regardless what their political stance is, we always have to weigh up and see what's going to be best for us," Jones, 41, said at Kutz and Kurlz, a barbershop and beauty salon in Bessemer, a city just southwest of Birmingham.

Morris Weatherly, 67, also backed Jones in the special election and says Trump "should have been gone a long time ago."

Morris Weatherly, at Crystal Coin laundromat in Bessemer, Alabama, on Friday, says, 'Doug Jones is a fair man.'Nicole Craine / for NBC News

Weatherly added that while he's not sure how Jones will vote in the coming trial, he trusts the senator to do what is best for Alabama.

"Doug Jones is a fair man," Weatherly said, "and he's going to do what's right for the people."

But not all of Jones' supporters would be that forgiving.

Joy Martucci, 38, said she remembers voting for Jones two years ago "like it was yesterday" and added that she would have a "hard time" if he decided to go against Democrats in the Senate trial.

Impeachment, Martucci said in Birmingham, "is one area where we need him to step it up."

On the other side of the ideological divide, Jimmie Lay said Trump inspired him to run for the City Council in Fultondale, a suburb north of Birmingham.

Don Youngblood of Adamsville, Alabama, with his dog, Peanut, at the flower shop where he works in Bessemer on Friday.Nicole Craine / for NBC News

"He's a businessman, like myself, and I was tired of career politicians," said Lay, a bail bondsman who voted for Moore in 2017. Lay said that his Christian values prevent him from voting for a Democrat and that he is confident that Jones won't win another election.

Don Youngblood, 64, who works at his wife's store, Mable's Flower Shop in Bessemer, accused the Democrats of trying to take over the country "like the Nazi party did" in Germany.

Youngblood, who said he didn't back Jones two years ago and won't in November, vehemently opposes removing Trump from office.

"If they try to take him out of office, I will be one of the first ones out there with whatever it took to put a stop to it," he said.

Mitch Felan reported from Alabama. Adam Edelman reported from New York.