In 2016, Sen. Jeff Sessions became the first major politician to endorse Donald Trump. In 2017, Trump rewarded Sessions by appointing him to attorney general. Later that year, cascading scandals involving Alabama politicians set up a race between Roy Moore and Doug Jones.

A campaign that may have changed politics in the South forever.

Moore was already one of the most notorious politicians in Alabama history. Previously removed from the state supreme court, he had a reputation as a conservative firebrand.

Doug Jones was less known. The man who would become the Democratic nominee was best known for his role in prosecuting a man who had bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four little girls.

Jones was a long shot from the start. But allegations against Moore turned the race into a toss-up. And Jones’ surprise victory reshaped our understanding of politics in the South.

This week on the Reckon Interview, we’re examining “the Doug Jones effect.”

This isn’t an episode about Jones’ chances in November. Current polling is not great for Alabama’s incumbent senator. and his odds against former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville are worse than they were against Moore.

But Jones’ surprise victory in 2017 reverberated throughout the South. You could argue that the massive investment in 2018 in races in places like Georgia and Mississippi were driven because Alabama had reset expectations about what is possible.

In 2020, there are competitive senate races in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Mississippi, Texas and Alabama. The future of the country—and the South—may hang in the balance.

We hear from political strategist David Mowery—who has worked with candidates on both sides of the aisle—about how 2017 changed the political strategy across the South.

And in Alabama, Jones’ victory accelerated a coup against state Democratic Party Leadership. We also speak with Chris England, an Alabama state representative and the new chairman of the state party. He tells us about the long road toward rebuilding.

Here are a few excerpts from our conversation with David Mowery. We’ll post segments from our discussion Rep. Chris England tomorrow but you can listen to the whole episode here.

And go ahead and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Acast or wherever else you get your podcasts to stay informed about the South this election season.

David Mowery on the South’s surprises in 2020

Everybody is curious can the Red wall be broken down in the South? There’s unprecedented amounts of money flowing into both our state and two states in the region for candidates that in a previous cycle might have got like—I don’t want to say laughed out of the room. But if you’d have told me in 2004/2006 that an African American Democratic candidate in South Carolina would be giving Lindsey Graham the hardest run that he’s ever had, I don’t know that I would have believed you.

Bananas amounts of money. To the point where I almost think that they may not know what to do with at all. Or they may be at a loss for what else they can do. “Okay, we’ve covered every base, now what do we do?”

And we can’t really talk about this without talking about COVID. Because in some ways, it stops you from doing certain traditional organizing techniques like door knocking or even really having a centralized field office for people to stop by and get signs and stuff like that. A lot of your traditional ways of doing things are probably not necessarily as effective.

You know, television is… when I started in this business, GOTV stood for “get on television.” And now while it’s still probably your number one communication medium, you have to do more. And you have to buy more in different programs and stuff to reach people. And then you have to do all the all the digital stuff on top of it and all the text banking and that type of thing.

In some ways that makes things that much crazier, because it’s very hard to tell where your message is breaking through.

David Mowery on Doug Jones vs. Tommy Tuberville

I think that Jones needs to peel people off of Tuberville to have a chance of winning. And it’s weird to say that because, you know, when people ask me, does he have a chance? I say, “Well, yeah, he won. So obviously, he has a chance, right?”

But the circumstances were quite different. And, you know, one of the things that is clear is that Tuberville, while he has his foibles as a candidate, he’s not Roy Moore. He’s not a known lightning rod that X percent of his own party already doesn’t like, and all the Democrats really don’t like. He doesn’t have those years of enmity built up.

Everybody paints us as, “you know, the South football’s really religion,” and you know, that’s the thing that goes over the top of even politics. It’s very hard to say, “hey, because this guy coached for the wrong team, so to speak, you shouldn’t vote for him when he’s representing your party.”

Alabama lacks the fundamentals that say Georgia has where you have a giant, urban core. And you have coalitions of minorities and college educated whites that kind of come together and it’s almost even the population of those groups as to the outstate, the downstate, the north part of Georgia. In Alabama, it’s like you just don’t have quite enough to push it over that hump.

I think it’s more difficult for Jones this year than it is for Ossoff in Georgia.

I think it’s a little more difficult than it is for Graham in South Carolina. Because the other thing about Graham is, is that he’s just been there forever. And you just have all this BS, that whether you agree with him or not, you’re not gonna agree with every position he took, because he’s taken the other side of every issue as well. And you don’t have the you don’t have the North Carolina thing where they have this massive influx of educated voters.

To hear more from David Mowery about the 2020 landscape in the South, listen to the full episode here.  

Reckon Interview Season Three