This story is part of a series focusing on climate change in key Senate races on the ballot in November.
At a Glance:
Democrat Doug Jones does not wear concerns about climate change on his sleeve but he also has not been afraid to tell conservative voters in his state that it’s a problem. He shook the political landscape in Republican-dominated Alabama when, in a 2017 special election, he became the first Democrat in Alabama to win a Senate seat since 1992.
In the Republican primary, President Donald Trump degraded his former attorney general Jeff Sessions at every turn; as a result, retired Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville is now challenging Jones as an unconventional candidate with anti-science views.
Tuberville does not accept mainstream climate science and has espoused a conspiracy theory about the Green New Deal and the coronavirus pandemic.
In rural, politically conservative states like Alabama, politicians who are seeking office and want to show their support for environmental causes usually don’t talk about climate change. They talk about how they like to hunt and fish and will protect natural treasures.
Doug Jones, a Democrat and former U.S. Attorney who made a name for himself by prosecuting Ku Klux Klan members, is doing just that in his campaign for the Senate. Alabama relies on its environment, Jones says, “not just for its beauty, but also as a driver of our state’s economy.”
But Jones also has gone beyond the traditional hook and bullet argument, supporting U.S. participation in the Paris climate agreement and speaking about the need to rein in climate change.
His opponent, retired Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville, a Republican, denies the science of climate change, citing his religious belief that God controls the climate.
The Environmental Protection Agency forecast for Alabama is one of rising seas and more severe flooding and drought, all driven by climate change. Tropical storms and hurricanes have become more intense in the last 20 years, according to the EPA. On Wednesday, Hurricane Sally, a Category 2 storm, made landfall near Gulf Shores, Alabama, bringing torrential rains and damaging wind.
Many Alabamians care about climate change, especially those who live near the coast, but the issue probably will not stand out as a significant concern for voters, said Regina L. Wagner, assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama. “I expect this race to basically be purely based on partisanship” and turnout, she said. “Jones can win if Democrats are motivated and turn out in high numbers and if Republicans are less motivated.”
Wagner said she wonders whether Trump splitting the party with his endorsement of Tuberville will have any lingering effects on Republican voters’ enthusiasm. The pandemic and the economy are also likely to factor into voters’ decision making, she said.
Still, the two candidates will present climate voters with a choice.
Tuberville took to Twitter in 2019 to object to a climate sit-in at the Harvard-Yale football game, writing that he would never have allowed such a scene. “Make no mistake about it, this is a result of liberal academia indoctrinating our kids. I guarantee you one thing, this would have never occurred when I was a head coach,” he tweeted.
And asked about the coal economy by the Jasper, Alabama, Daily Mountain Eagle newspaper, which serves a coal-mining region of the state, he went straight to the subject of climate change to express his opinion, by denying the science and then blaming China.
“There is one person that changes this climate in this country and that is God. OK?” Tuberville said in an interview posted on YouTube.
“You hear these people talk about the emissions and all those things,” he said. “Sure, we’ve got cars driving around, we’ve got coal burning but we are a small part of that. Look at China?”
Tuberville went on to say that climate change was “a talking point on the left that gives them an opportunity to scream and yell that this country is not going to last for 12 more years.”
And as a guest on the WVFN Jeff Poor radio show serving parts of northern Alabama including Huntsville, Tuberville said, without evidence, that the economic shutdown brought on by the pandemic was in fact an experiment by backers of the Green New Deal.
For his part, Jones, in AL.com, Alabama’s largest news source, defended climate science. “Ignoring the overwhelming evidence would be a form of malpractice on the part of public servants, the business community, and individual citizens alike,” he wrote in a 2019 op-ed article. “Left unaddressed, our children and grandchildren will inherit a less healthy planet, with far-reaching consequences for their economy, health, and way of life.”
Jones broke ranks with Democrats last year when he voted against nullifying President Trump’s watered-down replacement for President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which had sought to crack down on greenhouse gases from power plants. Jones told The Hill newspaper that he did not support the Trump administration’s weakening of power plant regulations but was also opposed to the method his fellow Democrats were using to stop the new Trump rule.
Of all the Democratic senators up for re-election, incumbent Jones is considered the most vulnerable. He may have lucked out in 2017’s special election, facing former Supreme Court Judge Roy Moore, whose campaign wilted under national media investigations and allegations of juvenile sexual assault.
But political observers in the state do not count him out. AL.com describes him as a “proven winner” who “remains a strong candidate.”
Tuberville is also a newcomer to politics with all the uncertainty that brings.
In a normal year, conventional wisdom would dictate that Jones could not win in a state with broad support for an incumbent president of the other political party. But this isn’t a normal year, and some polling suggests Trump’s response to the pandemic may have damaged him politically, even among Republicans. If enough independents and moderate Republicans feel that way (along with the fans of Auburn arch-rival, University of Alabama), they may reject an unproven Trump surrogate, and Jones will win his first full Senate term. Otherwise, Tuberville—who won 159 games and lost 99 in 21 seasons coaching at four universities over 21 years—will add another voice of climate denial to the U.S. Senate.