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 TrumpFederal plan to contain Washington protests employs 7,600 personnel: report GOP Rep calls on primary opponent to condemn campaign surrogate's racist video Tennessee court rules all registered voters can obtain mail-in ballots due to COVID-19 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 MooreSessions goes after Tuberville's coaching record in challenging him to debate The 10 Senate seats most likely to flip Sessions fires back at Trump over recusal: 'I did my duty & you're damn fortunate I did" 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) ManchinDemocratic unity starts to crack in coronavirus liability reform fight Stakes high for Collins in coronavirus relief standoff The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Surgeon General stresses need to invest much more in public health infrastructure, during and after COVID-19; Fauci hopeful vaccine could be deployed in December MORE (W.Va.), Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn Heitkamp70 former senators propose bipartisan caucus for incumbents Susan Collins set to play pivotal role in impeachment drama Pro-trade group launches media buy as Trump and Democrats near deal on new NAFTA MORE (N.D.) and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyEx-Sen. Joe Donnelly endorses Biden Lobbying world 70 former senators propose bipartisan caucus for incumbents 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 NelsonNASA, SpaceX and the private-public partnership that caused the flight of the Crew Dragon Lobbying world The most expensive congressional races of the last decade MORE (Fla.) and Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenOn The Money: GOP turning against new round of ,200 rebate checks | Millions of Americans frustrated by delayed unemployment checks | Senate votes to give coronavirus relief program more flexibility GOP senator blocks bill giving flexibility to small-business loans but says deal near This week: Surveillance fight sets early test for House's proxy voting 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 CornynGOP chairmen stake out turf in Obama-era probes Cornyn presses DOJ to release results of investigation into Larry Nassar probe Minority caucuses call for quick action on police reform 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 McConnellTrump vows to campaign against Murkowski after senator's criticism Senate advances conservation fund bill, House introduces companion Paul clashes with Booker, Harris over anti-lynching bill 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.”