An Alabama Senate Candidate Keeps Democratic Leaders Away — but Not Their Money

Doug Jones has portrayed his race for the Senate as an Alabama effort, apart from the national Democratic Party, but he is reaping the fruit of an energized party.

At first glance, Doug Jones, the Democratic nominee for Senate in Alabama, appears to be running a lonely race against Roy S. Moore, the arch-conservative former judge whose candidacy is being swallowed by accusations that he sexually assaulted teenage girls.

National Democratic groups have not spent a dollar on their own television or radio commercials promoting Mr. Jones, a former federal prosecutor. The party’s most popular campaigners, such as former President Barack Obama and Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont, have not set foot in the state. As Republicans in Washington pressure Mr. Moore to leave the race, Democratic leaders convey a stark public message to Mr. Jones: You’re on your own.

“It’s an Alabama race,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, said at a news conference on Monday, repeating the phrase three times for emphasis.

But the national Democrats’ ostensibly arm’s-length treatment of Mr. Jones belies a far deeper investment in the race. Senate Democrats covet Alabama’s Senate seat, passionately, but, as Mr. Schumer demonstrated, they are acutely aware of the risk of being seen as orchestrating the race from afar.

As Mr. Jones has gained ground against Mr. Moore, Democrats have taken quiet steps to shore up his candidacy, helping Mr. Jones raise money and battering Republicans who have been slow to denounce their party’s embattled nominee. Several liberal activist groups have begun deploying organizers to Alabama to help prepare get-out-the-vote efforts for Mr. Jones in the Dec. 12 election.

And far from being shunned by the party, Mr. Jones’s top advisers have been open about which direction the shunning is going.

“Stay home, this is our race and we’ll decide it here,” said Giles Perkins, a former Alabama Democratic Party chairman and one of Mr. Jones’s strategists.

Mr. Jones, 63, has leaned heavily on his biography and legal record in the race, highlighting above all his role in prosecuting two of the Ku Klux Klan members who bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963. With an easy personal manner that contrasts sharply with Mr. Moore’s fire-and-brimstone style, Mr. Jones appealed to national Democrats early on as the kind of candidate who could win over unsettled voters to the right of center.

Mr. Jones also has a political network of his own to draw on in the race, and the few out-of-state figures to visit Alabama for him have been personal acquaintances. Representative John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights legend who got to know Mr. Jones as a United States attorney, campaigned for him earlier this month. Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden held an event in Birmingham for Mr. Jones in September — Mr. Jones led Mr. Biden’s 1988 presidential campaign in Alabama.

Former Representative Parker Griffith, a conservative Democrat who supports Mr. Jones, said he spoke to Mr. Jones over the last few days and found him circumspect about the impact of the Moore scandal. “He’s so quiet and keeps his own counsel,” Mr. Griffith said of the Senate candidate. “He said, ‘Well, let’s see how this plays out.’”

Mr. Griffith, who briefly became a Republican during the 2010 campaign, said Mr. Jones was still struggling against Alabama’s intense suspicion of the Democratic label. He said even bringing in Mr. Biden may have been a mistake.

“The Democratic brand, in Alabama, is poisonous,” Mr. Griffith said, adding: “Some of us said, my God, when you see Biden, you see Obama.”

For now, other Democratic leaders are happy to stay out. For all his public caution, Mr. Schumer has been effusive about the Alabama campaign in private, according to people who have spoken with the Democratic leader and his advisers. Mr. Schumer has told allies that he believes the Senate race is now clearly winnable for Mr. Jones, but that Democrats must take pains not to nationalize the contest in a way that might offend voters in a deeply conservative state.

Democrats have taken as a cautionary tale the special election for a House seat in Georgia last summer, when national activists flooded the state’s Republican-leaning Sixth Congressional District with tens of millions of dollars, only to watch conservatives mobilize forcefully in response.

Still, in front of reporters, Mr. Schumer could not fully contain his excitement this week about the prospect of snatching away a Senate seat in one of the country’s reddest states. Pressed about whether out-of-state Democrats could help Mr. Jones without alienating Alabamians, Mr. Schumer gushed about Mr. Jones’s financial dominance over Mr. Moore, who has struggled to collect donations from mainline Republican donors.

“The amount of money that’s come in, even before the Moore scandal, is enormous,” Mr. Schumer exclaimed.

If the Republican Party’s national reputation appears to hinge on the fate of Mr. Moore’s candidacy, the stakes in Alabama have grown nearly as high for Democrats. Democrats face forbidding Senate races in 2018, when they need to defend several seats in Republican states and pick up three seats to win a majority in the chamber. At the moment, Democrats appear to have a good chance of winning only two Republican-held seats, in Nevada and Arizona.

An upset victory in Alabama would change that, transforming the challenge of winning a Senate majority from a seemingly impossible task into merely an extremely difficult one.

Mr. Jones’s campaign seems to recognize these stakes, and that victory may be in their grasp. Flush with optimism, the Democrat has turned to a hold-the-ball approach since a number of women emerged to recount their experiences with Mr. Moore when they were teens.

Mr. Jones decided not to travel to Washington on Tuesday night for a $500 per-person cocktail party fund-raiser headlined by such national party luminaries as Senator Kamala Harris and Eric H. Holder Jr., the former attorney general, because he saw no reason to do anything that could let Republicans redirect the focus of the campaign from Mr. Moore.

Instead of mingling with prominent liberals outside the state, Mr. Jones released a television commercial on Tuesday morning showcasing voters who identify themselves as Republicans who are supporting Mr. Jones, and who say they are appalled by Mr. Moore — a far less controversial approach in Alabama.

Another video implored Alabamians: “Don’t vote for the party. Vote for the man.”

And discussions among Democrats about bringing in former President Bill Clinton, who has his own history with sexual impropriety, have been shelved as part of Mr. Jones’s attempt to keep a local focus for the duration of the campaign.

Mr. Jones, however, has benefited for months from an unheralded campaign by Democrats in Washington to direct money to his campaign, fueling his strong advantage over Mr. Moore on television. Earlier this month, Representative Terri Sewell, the only Democrat in Alabama’s federal delegation, hosted a fund-raising event for Mr. Jones at a townhouse that is home to the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, with Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, in attendance.

Last weekend, as Mr. Moore fought for his political survival, the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights group, held a “Mimosas with a Purpose” fund-raiser for Mr. Jones at a private home in Washington.

While Mr. Jones and Mr. Moore have not reporting their fund-raising numbers since the end of September, Mr. Jones’s advantage is evident from the advertising war. He has spent nearly $2 million in commercials introducing himself to the state as an independent-minded lawman; Mr. Moore only began advertising last week, with about $300,000 in ads.

State Representative Anthony Daniels, the Democratic leader in the Alabama House of Representatives, urged Mr. Jones to remain focused on communicating an affirmative message about policy, rather than engaging Mr. Moore on the matter of sexual predation. The scandal, he said, would take on a life of its own.

“The best thing we can do is keep it positive and talk about where Doug stands, and where he is on the issues, and not get down in the mud,” Mr. Daniels said.

Referring to the media, Mr. Daniels added with a chuckle: “You guys are doing the job.”

Beyond the plain strategic value of winning the Senate seat, formerly occupied by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, some Democrats also sense a larger symbolic test for the party in Alabama. Should Mr. Jones prove unable to defeat Mr. Moore, it would be a stark and perhaps final verdict on the limitations of the modern Democratic Party in the Deep South. Democrats have not won a statewide election in Alabama since 2006, or elected one of their own to the Senate in a quarter-century.

But Democrats believe the Moore scandal may have opened an unusually wide path to victory for Mr. Jones in a state that is typically polarized along racial lines. Before the revelations about Mr. Moore, Mr. Jones would have had to drive up African-American turnout to unusual levels and peel off a sizable bloc of conservative-leaning whites to win. With mainstream Republicans now recoiling from Mr. Moore, Mr. Jones may have an easier time attracting white votes, potentially easing the pressure on him to produce astronomical black turnout.

What’s more, strategists say, some Republicans turned off by Mr. Moore may simply stay home, since the Senate race is the only election on the ballot and there are no other offices to draw them to the polls.

“Two things have happened now,” Mr. Perkins said, regarding white voters. “Most of them are available to use on the Alabama-doesn’t-want-to-be-embarrassed or this-may-be-a-bad-guy line. And second, some folks just aren’t going to show up.”