(Montgomery Advertiser) – U.S. Sen. Doug Jones is trying to limit his in-person campaigning.
He works from an iPad or in front of a camera, and when he's home, Jones says he only goes out to buy groceries. As he looks to what will likely be a difficult re-election campaign this fall, Jones says the coronavirus outbreak takes priority.
“When you see me at home, you will see me with a mask on,” he said in an interview Thursday. “I will limit things to smaller venues. I may be going to Huntsville soon to do something at Chamber of Commerce, but that is going to be more virtual.”
The freshman senator's engagement with the outbreak is a contrast to the two men vying to get the Republican nomination to run against him in the fall.
While Jones has discussed the pandemic and the response throughout the spring, former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former Auburn head football coach Tommy Tuberville have said little about the outbreak since April, focusing instead on issues like immigration to appeal to Republican voters who will make up the runoff electorate on July 14.
The contrast was notable on Thursday, when (according to Bama Tracker) Alabama reported 1,129 new cases of COVID-19, the highest daily total. The seven-day average of new cases in the state has doubled since June 5, and positive test rates have hovered near 10%. Alabamians traveling to New York, New Jersey or Connecticut will have to self-quarantine for two weeks.
Jones, who hosted a Facebook event Thursday with Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, the director of UAB’s Division of Infectious Diseases, encouraged the use of masks and social distancing.
“We are at a point now where we can’t afford to see the steep increase where we are on July 4, just like we saw steep increases after Memorial Day,” Jones said.
Requests for comment were sent to the Sessions and Tuberville campaigns on Thursday. Neither campaign responded to requests for comment on the daily record on COVID-19 cases set Thursday.
Since the outbreak began, Jones has turned his weekly information sessions into Facebook events on the outbreak. Most of the 11 events Jones has held since early April have featured a health professional. The Senator has also criticized the federal response and urged more action to provide relief to individuals and businesses.
The Senator has also called for direct aid to states and municipalities that may see tax revenues fall as a result of the economic slowdown. Montgomery has made budget cuts in response to a drop in receipts.
On Thursday’s event, Jones criticized Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, for failing to move an aid package similar to what passed Congress in March.
“I think we’re just now beginning to see a precipitous drop in revenue in cities and counties,” he said. “They’re going to need help just like our businesses need help. What we’ve done is not a stimulus package. We have not done anything to stimulate the economy. We have just tried to save the economy.”
At the same time, Jones is reluctant to criticize decisions made by state officials, including Gov. Kay Ivey. Jones said in his Thursday event and an interview afterward that he and other officials “underestimated” the reluctance of many residents to follow guidance on masks and social distancing, but he did not criticize Ivey’s decision to lift coronavirus restrictions in May after the April lockdown. The Senator noted that Ivey and State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris have repeatedly urged the use of masks.
“I do believe that the last order was not in any way inappropriate,” Jones said. “What I have stressed, though, was that people need to listen to her entire message, both the governor’s and other officials’.”
Sessions and Tuberville did address the outbreak this spring, but they tended to focus their statements on blaming China for the pandemic. Following other Republicans, Sessions released a statement in early April calling for mandates on federal government agencies to purchase domestic-made medical supplies.
Neither candidate has said a great deal in public about the outbreak since mid-April. Sessions has focused on immigration restrictions in recent weeks. Tuberville’s last statement on the outbreak occurred in May, where he echoed President Donald Trump’s call to reopen the churches in a Facebook post.
The lack of engagement on the issue reflects Trump’s dominance of the GOP race. The president has endorsed Tuberville and attacked Sessions, but neither man shows any desire to publicly contradict Trump, who remains popular with Alabama Republicans. Trump said at a rally in Tulsa on Saturday he told officials to slow down testing (though he has sent mixed signals on whether he meant it) and has suggested wearing masks is a way for people to "signal disapproval" of him.
In Phoenix on Thursday, Trump said the country was at “the end of the pandemic,” even as caseloads rise in Arizona, Alabama and elsewhere. That attitude, said political scientists, makes it difficult for the GOP candidates to address the outbreak, even if they wanted to. Ivey has largely avoided public comment on the outbreak since mid-May, though she touched on the pandemic in comments to the Huntsville-Madison Chamber of Commerce on Friday, via video link.
“For Tuberville, he can’t come out and strongly say ‘more testing, let’s get everyone to wear a mask,' because it’s in direct opposition to the president,” said Natalie Davis, a professor emerita of political science at Birmingham-Southern College. “He worked hard to get that endorsement.”
Sessions, Davis said, “doesn’t want to make anything worse for himself than they already are.”
Ryan Williamson, an assistant professor of political science at Auburn University, said Republicans engaging with outbreak would mean they would potentially have to address the failures of the response.
“They hope they can continue to not address it,” he said. “As long as the issue of wearing masks remains politicized, and people say ‘I want to live my life and we don’t want the economy to go to ruins,’ they can continue to skirt the issue.”
Democrats, meanwhile, have to confront an outbreak ravaging Alabama’s Black communities, a critical part of the party’s base. U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Birmingham, has held numerous events addressing the outbreak. In a statement Friday, Sewell said in April she urged Ivey to stand by lockdown measures until cases declined and to develop a contingency plan to deal with a growth in cases after reopening.
“I stand by that report and hope that we will see stronger and more decisive action on the part of the state to ensure the safety and well-being of all Alabamians and, especially, Black Alabamians who are disproportionately impacted by this virus,” the statement said.
Davis said Jones’ engagement should help him with Black voters and white suburban women, two groups he needs to win to have a shot at re-election.
“This is not to say he is not sincere in everything he’s doing,” Davis said. “He probably is. But it works to his advantage to come across as moderate and let the constituencies know he’s with them.”
Jones said Thursday political consideration were not a factor and that he was trying to get information out in a nonpolitical manner.
At the same time, he acknowledged that response to the outbreak would be part of his fall message.
“I think leadership will be an important issue,” he said. “That is going to be leadership on any number of things including this virus, and how someone will step up to provide leadership in the Senate, leadership in the state.”
(Brian Lyman, Montgomery Advertiser)