Demetrius Griffin works at a Dollar General in Birmingham, but he wants to be a police officer someday.
During a recent night shift, I watched the 20-year-old behind the neon-lit counter as he held court. He is enviably easy with people. When he flashed an elderly lady a smile while bagging her groceries, she literally shimmied her shoulders with delight.
I’d stopped in the store to buy a sippy cup for my kid and to ask people about the upcoming special Senate election to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Griffin was the first person I met: a community-minded, Black millennial from a low-income neighborhood.
“You know Randall Woodfin?” he asked me, referring to a mayoral candidate in Birmingham, a young lawyer with national support in his candidacy against longtime mayor William Bell. “He was my mentor in school.” Griffin said he’s personally invested in the mayoral race because he’s interested in the ways crime, education and access to jobs affect his friends and family. So, I was surprised at his response when I asked if he knew the dollar store was around the corner from the campaign headquarters of Democratic Senate hopeful Doug Jones.
Griffin clutched his belly, laughing, and gave me a you’re-joking-right look. “I didn’t even know a Democrat was in it.”
We were weeks away from August 15. That’s when seven Democratic contenders will square off in a primary on the same day as a packed field of 11 Republicans.
The general election isn’t until December 12, with a possible runoff in September, but national pundits seem to have made up their minds already: the GOP primary winner will be the state’s next Senator. Most bets are on interim Senator Luther Strange, who has the backing of Mitch McConnell and his Super Pac, estimated to spend $6 to $8 million to ensure a victory over far-right Congressman Mo Brooks and even farther right Judge Roy Moore, the guy who’s famous for defying the US Supreme Court Ruling on same-sex marriage.
It’s no wonder Griffin thought Strange, Brooks and Moore were the only guys in the race. Most folks I talked to said they didn’t know Democrats were competing for the seat either. Heck, before I started reporting this story, I didn’t know Democrats were in it.
While he continued to check out customers, Griffin and I talked about how it’s hard to be an Alabamian and not succumb to the reign of poorly behaved Republicans.
In the past few years alone, each branch of Alabama’s government has dealt with depravity. Governor Bentley was impeached and resigned after a sex scandal. Mike Hubbard, the speaker of the house, was indicted on 23 felony charges. Moore, the aforementioned chief justice—and now competitive Senate candidate—resigned for the second time from the highest court appointment after he was suspended for defying the Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage.
As my granny might say, the shame of it all is enough to make a tomato blush.
Even this special election began in scandal. When Sessions joined Trump in Washington, Governor Robert Bentley appointed Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange to fill the seat. Bentley would resign just two months later, and Strange was trailed by accusations he’d overlooked Bentley’s alleged criminal activity and affair. So even though the interim Strange has GOP establishment support, he’s got a sullied former governor attached to him as well. Or, as one Baldwin county voter told the Associated Press, a lot of voters think Strange has “too many Bentley cooties on him.”
Still, people are looking to Alabama to see what happens mid-term with the GOP in Trump country. For months, every national media outlet—from the New York Times to Fox News to NPRto the Wall Street Journal—has watched as the top three Republicans vied for Trump’s affections, declaring the presidency a divine intervention while tit-for-tatting at firing ranges.
And then there are the ads. Alabama’s airways are flooded with GOP spots, the screwiest of which include Congressman Brooks unapologetically using gunshot audio from the recent attack at a congressional baseball practice, Moore doubling down on the moves that had him twice ousted from office, and Strange, or “Big Luther” as the 6-foot-9 incumbent prefers, firing an actual pistol at a paper target marked “Obama’s policies.”
Things have gotten so odd, Washington Post columnist George Will declared their battle the beginning of the GOP as the party of the grotesque, writing, “Alabama’s primary says more about Republicans than about this region.”
Griffin joked about these ads as he worked through his line of customers. I asked the whole line who was following the Senate race. None were.
A salt-and-pepper haired white woman said she couldn’t even think about politics as she casually threw a 40-pound bag of dog food over her shoulder, wrapped her other arm around me and asked for my prayers. She was taking care of her niece’s dog while the niece, only 27, recovered from a drug-related heart attack in ICU at a nearby hospital. A young black woman wore cartoon-covered scrubs, had clocked out from the same hospital and seemed annoyed by the prospect of a political conversation. A white cop in uniform, who looked like he might be close to retirement, bought a Gatorade, simply shaking his head as if to say: “I’m not here.” A middle-aged black guy with tattoos climbing his neck was buying birthday presents for his nephews and said he was “hip” to the race but didn’t care much as long as politicians didn’t mess with the drug trade. “Some of us ain’t got jobs. So, that’s what we do.”
As Griffin put it, a lot of working class people around here don’t have the time or energy to waste on a race that’s already got a winner. “If it were a toss-up, I’d be following it. I’ve lived here for 20 years. I know this ain’t a toss-up.”
An hour earlier, a very different crowd at the Doug Jones headquarters stuck nametags to their summer suit lapels and wrapped napkins around plastic cups while a jazz trio played beneath strung lights. They were light-hearted, a feat in an un-air-conditioned former industrial warehouse on a July night in Alabama. They were white, mostly. And if their loafers were any indication, they were moneyed.
They were excited, too, in their own way—muted, with little high fives and quiet whoops—to see their candidate. Because possibly, under the absolute perfect conditions, they’d be early players in a game-changing moment in Alabama politics.
“This is a special election,” attorney Rip Andrews emphasized as he introduced his father-in-law, Jones, to the crowd. “He can win.”
Jones hopped on the makeshift stage in the warehouse with his wife, Louise, and they lifted their linked arms, looking poised, albeit damp around the edges after the 90-degree meet-and-greet. He thanked everyone for coming and opened with the day’s top news story: the defeat of the Obamacare repeal. “I know a lot of people are thanking John McCain today, calling him a hero–and we should be—but let’s not forget he’d just be another ‘no’ vote if it weren’t for two strong women!”
I watched a woman in a pinstripe jumper hold a Coca-Cola can over her head, close her eyes and cheer as if a sweaty Tim McGraw was on stage.
Jones spends a lot of time making sure potential voters know his story. He’s a former US District Attorney appointed by President Clinton and approved by a majority Republican Senate. Best known for re-opening the cold case of the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, in 2001, Jones convicted the Ku Klux Klansmen who killed four little girls in the attack. What followed, he told me, is a career centered around civil rights activism, traveling the country to talk about equality and justice.
“He’s the sanest choice we’ve got. His whole career has been sticking his neck out for other people,” one supporter said as he cooled off in front of an industrial-sized fan.
The campaign is selling Jones as the working-class grandson of a coal miner and a steel worker: A golly-gee, bootstrapping public servant with a political record as clean of scandal as his accent is Southern.
If he were running one state over, he’s the kind of candidate who might be the recipient of enormous financial support, as documentary filmmaker Jon Ossoff was this year in Georgia. (Although, even in the Atlanta suburbs, to the dismay of the entire Democratic base, $23 million couldn’t secure a victory.)
But this is Alabama.
This is a state considered the deepest of deep red. In November, 62.9 percent of the state voted for Trump. Moderates and “swing voters” aren’t the powerful bloc they are in purpler parts of the South.
Even though Jones said he’s received backing from donors in 48 states and has scored endorsements from heavy Democrat hitters Vice President Joe Biden and Senator John Lewis, the big money isn’t there.
“As a practical matter,” Jones told me, “I don’t have a sugar daddy like Luther Strange has in Mitch McConnell.” Jones is banking, instead, on blurring party line divisions as people focus on “kitchen table” issues.
“People are ready to talk about justice,” Jones said in an interview after the fundraiser. He compared the political environment today to the Civil Rights Movement. He told the story of 1963: While Civil Rights leaders made sense of a failed action in Albany, Georgia, Fred Shuttlesworth called Martin Luther King Jr. and told him to come to Birmingham to face down Bull Connor, because if you can make inroads in Alabama, you can change the country. “If we flipped this race, if we flipped this seat, you can count on the fact that people are going to look at 2018 in a wholedifferent light. I don’t think we have to win it to do that. Just by being competitive, we’d stir the pot. But the fact is, I think we can win. And if we do, all the dynamics in 2018 change.”
A few days later, when I told a neighbor Democrats thought they might flip the seat, he laughed and said, “Sure, and the Crimson Tide ain’t gonna be popular this fall.”
William Stewart, emeritus professor of political science at the Crimson Tide’s home base, the University of Alabama, was clearer about a progressive underdog’s prospects: “[O]bjective observers consistently rank Alabama as one of the most Republican and most conservative states in the nation. These statistics virtually assure that no Democrat will win statewide office in the foreseeable future, no matter how qualified he or she might be.”
That no-way, no-how thinking isn’t stopping Democratic candidates from looking past the primary—after all, they reason, polls and pundits have gotten much bigger races wrong.
Among Jones’ primary opponents, Michael Hansen, the executive director of the nonprofit Gaspand an openly gay environmentalist, took to Medium to reach out to voters who share his fed-upness with quality of life in Alabama. “I know what it’s like to live paycheck-to-paycheck. I know what it’s like to have to choose between prescriptions and groceries. I know how it feels to lose a loved one to the opioid crisis. I have felt the sting of discrimination. I know your pain because I too have lived it.”
At the other end of the Democratic spectrum is “faith, family and freedom” attorney Robert Kennedy Jr. Described by one pollster as a south Alabamian with “a really good name,” Kennedy has taken a lot of flak for being name twins with one of the most famous American politicians (there’s no relation).
Yet, he’s highly respected Black veteran in a state where majority Democrat voters are black, and he’s polling well. Plus, he’s the only Democrat making a concerted effort to reach Republican voters, going on conservative talk radio shows and often whipping out his concealed carry permit when he meets voters on the road. His campaign manager, Scott Hottenstein, said in an email that he thinks Kennedy can steal more than 15 percent of Republican voters for a Democratic upset in the general.
Because this is a special election, Professor Stewart and other analysts expect a low turnout for the primary, 20 to 25 percent of voters. A similarly low turnout is likely for December. In June, AL.com political commentator Kyle Whitmire wrote that low turnout would be good for Roy Mooreand his “passionate-but-crazy” supporters.
But Whitmire also said Moore, who is deeply polarizing in the state, is “soft and maybe even beatable.”
Maybe even beatable.
If Roy Moore wins the primary, and the Democratic candidate turns out voters in higher-than-expected numbers, or if GOP voters rest on deep-red laurels and skip the polls altogether, then voilá: Alabama’s turned purple.
And if that happens, what will it say about the state considered ground zero in Trump Country?
When I asked Demetrius Griffin at the Dollar General to indulge the possibility, he smiled. “If a Democrat wins, it’d shake up politics for the country … It’d shake things up big time.”
Here’s a full rundown of candidates in the Aug. 15 primary.