Doug Jones walks tightrope on Supreme Court nominee

Doug Jones walks tightrope on Supreme Court nominee
© Greg Nash

Democratic Sen. Doug Jones (Ala.) is walking a political tightrope as he weighs whether to support Brett Kavanaugh, President TrumpDonald John TrumpLondon terror suspect’s children told authorities he complained about Trump: inquiry The Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh Trump to nominate retiring lawmaker as head of trade agency MORE's Supreme Court nominee. 

The red-state Democrat is in a pressure cooker despite not running for reelection this year, unlike other senators viewed as top targets by groups on both sides of the aisle. 

The fight puts him between his conservative state, where Republicans are already angling to unseat him in 2020, and progressives who have rallied around him since his victory last year. 

Jones — like other red-state Democrats — is remaining tight-lipped about how he’ll handle Kavanaugh’s nomination despite near-daily hounding by reporters on Capitol Hill. 

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“I’ve got thoughts, but I’m not going to say,” he said. “I want to do my investigative work. ... We’ll go from there.”

A spokesman for the senator didn’t respond to a request for comment on whether the White House reached out to Jones when Trump was deciding whom to pick.

Jones was invited, but declined, to attend the White House’s unveiling of Kavanaugh. 

He told reporters that he while he expected to meet with Kavanaugh, he wanted to finish his own investigation first. The timing of the meeting, which Jones described as being scheduled “late in the game,” indicates that the senator could remain on the fence for weeks.

Unlike other potential swing votes, Jones wasn’t in the Senate last year for Justice Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation fight, leaving court watchers without a baseline to predict which way he’ll vote in the current high-stakes showdown. 

Jones said he had a sense of what he is looking for from Kavanaugh. But when pressed if he wanted to share his thinking, he said: “No.” 

“I’m going to do a deep dive of his record and we’ll talk about that record,” he added. “I’ll make my judgment at that point.” 

Asked his initial thoughts on Kavanaugh, Jones reiterated his comment and noted that he has “a lot of work to do.” 

Jones — a former attorney who successfully prosecuted members of the Ku Klux Klan for a 1963 church bombing — joined the Senate in January after scoring an upset victory late last year over controversial conservative firebrand Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreRoy Moore dismisses Kavanaugh accusation: 'So obvious' when claims come 'just days before a very important event' DOJ looking into 'concerning' behavior by employee in Project Veritas video Corey Stewart fires aide who helped bring far-right ideas to campaign: report MORE

Since then he’s tried to thread a needle in a Senate that is increasingly divided ideologically, including working with a group of moderate senators who crafted an agreement that helped end the days-long government shutdown. 

He votes with Trump on legislation 50 percent of the time, according to a FiveThirtyEight tracker of key congressional votes. Only three Democratic senators have sided with the president more frequently: Sens. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinThe Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh McCaskill to oppose Kavanaugh nomination The Memo: Kavanaugh firestorm consumes political world MORE (W.Va.), Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampThe Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh McCaskill to oppose Kavanaugh nomination Election Countdown: Trump confident about midterms in Hill.TV interview | Kavanaugh controversy tests candidates | Sanders, Warren ponder if both can run | Super PACs spending big | Two states open general election voting Friday | Latest Senate polls MORE (N.D.) and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyThe Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh McCaskill to oppose Kavanaugh nomination The Memo: Kavanaugh firestorm consumes political world MORE (Ind.), who, unlike Jones, are up for reelection and each voted for Gorsuch. 

He also voted for an initial government funding bill opposed by most of his party, as well as a banking reform bill loathed by progressives. But he opposed Gina Haspel to lead the CIA. Six Democrats, including purple state Sens. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonThe Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — The Hill interviews President Trump The Hill's 12:30 Report — Kavanaugh controversy consumes Washington | Kavanaugh slated to testify Monday | Allegations shake up midterms Florida governor booed out of restaurant over red tide algae issues MORE (Fla.) and Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenSome employees' personal data revealed in State Department email breach: report Dems seek ways to block Trump support for Saudi-led coalition in Yemen Hillicon Valley: Trump signs off on sanctions for election meddlers | Russian hacker pleads guilty over botnet | Reddit bans QAnon forum | FCC delays review of T-Mobile, Sprint merger | EU approves controversial copyright law MORE (N.H.), supported her. 

He also voted against a bill banning most abortions after 20 weeks and delighted his progressive colleagues — and made national headlines — when he dedicated his first speech on the Senate floor to gun control. 

But the Supreme Court nomination is his biggest test to date with both sides clearly viewing him as a swing vote.

"I hope he'll be open. ... I mean nobody is really questioning the judge's qualifications," said GOP Sen. John CornynJohn CornynKey GOP senators appear cool to Kavanaugh accuser's demand Trump, GOP regain edge in Kavanaugh battle GOP mulls having outside counsel question Kavanaugh, Ford MORE (Texas). "I'm certainly eager to engage with him and hopefully he will." 

Underscoring how big of a target he is, the Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative group backing Kavanaugh's nomination, announced that it would launch a $1.4 million ad buy targeting four states: Indiana, North Dakota, West Virginia and Alabama. Jones’s is the only state where a red-state Democrat is not up for reelection. 

The anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List launched digital ads against six red-state Democrats this week. Jones, again, was the only one not up for reelection in November.  

And the Senate Leadership Fund, which has close ties with Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellKey GOP senators appear cool to Kavanaugh accuser's demand Trump hints at new executive action on immigration, wants filibuster-proof Senate majority The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — The Hill interviews President Trump MORE (R-Ky.), took a shot at Jones’s pledge to have an “independent review” of Kavanaugh’s nomination. 

"The more Jones votes with the radical and unhinged members of his political party, the more difficult his reelection will become,” said Chris Pack, a spokesman for the GOP group. 

A vote against Kavanaugh would be fodder for Republicans in 2020 to paint Jones as out of touch with Alabama, where GOP strategists and lawmakers already argue he won last year only because of his politically toxic opponent. 

But the political blowback and politics of his own conservative state aren’t earning him a pass from liberals, who have come out swinging against Kavanaugh and view him as a threat to the party’s long-held values. 

CREDO Action co-director Heidi Hess noted that the group is working to make sure Jones — whom she characterized as having “some good votes” and “some bad votes” since joining the Senate — knows his constituents will “have his back” if he votes against Kavanaugh. 

“We feel like he's sort of said I'm going to have an open mind,” she said. “He's definitely in our list of targets." 

Elizabeth Beavers, policy director for the liberal Indivisible Project, added that Jones has been a “mixed bag” and “people are looking at Jones” to see how he handles Kavanaugh’s nomination. 

Progressive outside groups are aiming to pressure Democrats to come out early in united opposition to Kavanaugh’s nomination. But Jones is indicating that’s not high on his of list of priorities. 

“I think it’s important for the country to given an independent review for this guy,” he said, when asked if it was important for Democrats to remain unified. “To make an independent decision.”