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 TrumpRosenstein expected to leave DOJ next month: reports Allies wary of Shanahan's assurances with looming presence of Trump States file lawsuit seeking to block Trump's national emergency declaration 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 MooreRepublican state official faces pushback for comments on Sinema's attire Hillicon Valley: Dem blasts groups behind Senate campaign disinformation effort | FCC chief declines to give briefing on location-data sales | Ocasio-Cortez tops lawmakers on social media | Trump officials to ease drone rules Domestic influence campaigns borrow from Russia’s playbook 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) ManchinDemocrats brush off GOP 'trolling' over Green New Deal Senate confirms Trump pick William Barr as new attorney general GOP wants to pit Ocasio-Cortez against Democrats in the Senate MORE (W.Va.), Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampOvernight Energy: Trump taps ex-oil lobbyist Bernhardt to lead Interior | Bernhardt slams Obama officials for agency's ethics issues | Head of major green group steps down Trump picks ex-oil lobbyist David Bernhardt for Interior secretary On The Money: Shutdown Day 27 | Trump fires back at Pelosi by canceling her foreign travel | Dems blast 'petty' move | Trump also cancels delegation to Davos | House votes to disapprove of Trump lifting Russia sanction MORE (N.D.) and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyOvernight Energy: Trump taps ex-oil lobbyist Bernhardt to lead Interior | Bernhardt slams Obama officials for agency's ethics issues | Head of major green group steps down Trump picks ex-oil lobbyist David Bernhardt for Interior secretary EPA's Wheeler faces grilling over rule rollbacks 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 Nelson2020 party politics in Puerto Rico There is no winning without Latinos as part of your coalition Dem 2020 candidates court Puerto Rico as long nomination contest looms MORE (Fla.) and Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenCongress must step up to protect Medicare home health care Dems slam EPA plan for fighting drinking water contaminants Bipartisan Senators reintroduce legislation to slap new sanctions on Russia 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 CornynOn unilateral executive action, Mitch McConnell was right — in 2014 Poll shows competitive matchup if O’Rourke ran for Senate again On The Money: Trump declares emergency at border | Braces for legal fight | Move divides GOP | Trump signs border deal to avoid shutdown | Winners, losers from spending fight | US, China trade talks to resume next week 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 McConnellDemocrats brush off GOP 'trolling' over Green New Deal Trump should beware the 'clawback' Congress Juan Williams: America needs radical solutions 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.”