No Accidental Candidate, Alabama Democrat Laid Path for Years
A former United States attorney, Mr. Jones, 63, has relied most heavily on a community of liberal lawyers and veteran prosecutors who have vouched for him in Washington. Among Mr. Jones’s champions have been Mr. Holder, who served with Mr. Jones as a federal prosecutor, and Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, the former vice-presidential candidate whom Mr. Jones befriended more than a decade ago.
More than a dozen former United States attorneys cut checks to Mr. Jones’s campaign by the end of September, from states across the South as well as California, Massachusetts, Michigan and New York. Mr. Kaine contributed $5,000, the maximum amount allowed from his political action committee in May, three months before any other Democratic senator gave him a donation.
Even before Mr. Moore faced a debilitating scandal, Mr. Jones had established a clear financial advantage. He finished September with about $1 million in the bank, nearly double Mr. Moore’s modest war chest, and that disparity has likely grown.
In many cases, Mr. Jones’s allies described backing him as an act of friendship rather than strategy, given Alabama’s forbidding political hue. Mr. Jones began calling them early this year to argue that he could actually win, meeting a combination of encouragement and skepticism. At a reunion dinner of Clinton-appointed prosecutors in October, Mr. Jones checked in with his former colleagues via FaceTime.
Paul Coggins, a lawyer based in Dallas who was the United States attorney for the Northern District of Texas, said Mr. Jones had reached out to him, laying out his strategy, before announcing for the race. Mr. Coggins said he donated out of a sense of loyalty, but doubted his friend’s odds.
“Like a lot of checks I write in red states, I thought: This is something you’re doing for a friend,” Mr. Coggins recalled. “I thought, ‘You’re a great guy, but really? A Democrat running in Alabama?’”
Given the party’s dismal standing in the state, Mr. Jones has largely tried to avoid advertising his out-of-state connections. He has presented himself as an independent-minded lawman and canceled a fund-raising trip to Washington to avoid stirring controversy at home. Despite Mr. Moore’s problems, the Republican has led in recent polls, and Mr. Jones’s party label could well prove an insurmountable obstacle.
But Mr. Jones has not been shy about his Democratic affiliation. When national dignitaries visited Alabama, he was often there to greet them: Having supported Joseph R. Biden Jr. for president in 1988, Mr. Jones kept in touch and chauffeured Mr. Biden from the airport in Muscle Shoals to the funeral of Senator Howell Heflin in 2005. During the presidential election last year, Mr. Kaine visited Birmingham to raise money and huddled briefly with Mr. Jones while he was there, according to an aide.
The two men spoke shortly before Thanksgiving, according to Mr. Kaine. Mr. Jones’s campaign declined to make him available for an interview.
Gregory Vega, a close friend of Mr. Jones who served as the top federal prosecutor in Southern California, said Mr. Jones had long mulled a political campaign before lunging at a surprise vacancy in the Senate. He ran briefly for the Senate in 2002, but dropped out early and complained that Democrats had written off the state.
“His desire for going back to public service always kind of gnawed at him,” said Mr. Vega, who helped organize the Washington fund-raiser at the home of his cousin, Jose H. Villareal, a prominent lawyer and Democratic fund-raiser.
Former Representative Artur Davis of Alabama, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2010 as a Democrat, said Mr. Jones established himself as a political gatekeeper in Birmingham after leaving appointed office. Mr. Jones, then in private practice, hosted two fund-raisers for him after peppering him with political queries.
In the Senate race, Mr. Jones’s most important relationships have come from two main circles: fellow trial lawyers and civil rights activists. Best known for securing the convictions of two men responsible for bombing Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, Mr. Jones collaborated in office with several national Democrats invested in civil rights, including Representative John Lewis of Georgia.
Mr. Lewis has backed him energetically for Senate, publicly endorsing him before the Democratic primary and privately urging other lawmakers to support his candidacy. Mr. Lewis addressed the Washington fund-raiser for Mr. Jones as a kind of character witness, emphasizing his sense of social justice, two attendees said.
Representative Terri Sewell of Alabama, the state’s only Democrat in Congress, said in a recent interview that Mr. Jones was a known quantity to House Democrats before the Senate race, because he often participated in pilgrimages, led by Mr. Lewis, commemorating the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery.
Dick Molpus, a former Mississippi secretary of state, said he had met Mr. Jones in 2004 at an event in Neshoba County, Miss., marking the murders of civil rights workers. Recalling Mr. Jones’s speech there, Mr. Molpus said he donated to Mr. Jones’s Senate campaign early, despite viewing it as a “symbolic race.” He said he viewed Mr. Jones as a “Southern hero.”
The support of black leaders like Mr. Lewis and Ms. Sewell has been a cornerstone of Mr. Jones’s strategy in a race that may hinge on African-American turnout. Even with their energetic help, it is unclear whether Mr. Jones can generate sufficient enthusiasm among black voters to win.
If Mr. Jones was seen, among his friends, as a likely candidate at some point, he confided more focused aspirations to a few former colleagues from the Clinton administration starting in 2015. Jim Johnson, a former assistant secretary in the Treasury Department, said Mr. Jones had described his hope to run for high office over a lunch in Birmingham early that year.
Mr. Johnson was visiting landmark sites of the civil rights movement with his daughter, and considering a campaign of his own for governor of New Jersey. Mr. Jones, he said, took them to the 16th Street Baptist Church and spent more than an hour describing the attack and investigation.
At lunch, Mr. Jones raised his interest in becoming a candidate. “He was decidedly focused,” Mr. Johnson said. “We did not talk about the tactics of a run, but it was clear.”