BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — When Sen. Doug Jones threw out the ceremonial first pitch at a Birmingham Barons baseball game here recently, members of a local LGBTQ choir who had come for the minor-league team's "Gay Pride" night cheered.

And yet, just rows behind them, fans from nearby Shelby County who'd come for the baseball, not knowing of the evening's theme, withheld their applause and quietly sipped their beers. 

That kind of sharp divide in this deep-red state underscores both the notable progress achieved by Southern Democrats but also the challenges Jones faces in his home state six months after his shocking victory over Roy Moore in the December special electionmade him the first Democratic senator to be elected in Alabama in 25 years.

Jones was sworn in on Jan. 3, and, half a year later, the mild-mannered senator has in many ways made good on his campaign promises to bring back "common courtesy and decency" to politics and largely shied away from being an attack dog targeting President Donald Trump.

But Jones has also staked out a portfolio of liberal positions — including supporting abortion rights, LGBTQ equality and gun control — in a state where Trump crushed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, 63 percent to 35 percent.

And despite having cast more votes in the Senate in support of the president's agenda than all but three of his Democratic colleagues, Jones has yet to build a solid bridge to the majority-Republican electorate that would help his re-election prospects in two years. (It is unclear who may challenge Jones, although conservative Rep. Bradley Bryne, R-Ala., said last week that he's weighing a run.)

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Jones is something of a unique character in the Senate — he isn't in lock step with Democratic leadership, nor does he always follow the lead of red-state Democrats who tend to defect and vote with Republicans.

"I like senators who try to work across party lines," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, on which Jones sits. "He studies the issues. Sometimes, he votes independent of his own party."

Three weeks after he was sworn in, Jones was among six Democrats to break with party leaders to join Republicans in voting for a short-term bill to extend government funding and prevent a shutdown. The bill failed by a single vote, and a shutdown lasted for several days.

Jones said he didn't love the measure but wasn't concerned about pleasing Democratic leaders.

That was one of four crucial votes in which Jones defected from much of his party. He also broke with leadership in January to vote to confirm Alex Azar for secretary of Health and Human Services and again in March to vote for a measure that rolled back some banking regulations instituted by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law. In April, Jones joined five red-state Democrats in voting to confirm Mike Pompeo as secretary of state.
 

Jones has voted in support of Trump 53 percent of the time in 17 key votes he's taken since joining the Senate, according to FiveThirtyEight.com's vote tracker. That's more than all but three Democratic senators (Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana), all of whom are from red states and facing re-election this fall.

"I think he's terrific," Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who also faces a tough re-election fight, said in an interview. "It's harder work when you're not interested in voting the party line. You've got to look at every issue from all sides."

"I really have been pleasantly surprised how willing he is to tell Chuck Schumer to go fly a kite," she added, referring to the Senate minority leader.

At other times, however, Jones has taken up liberal positions seen as risky for a Democratic senator from a GOP state.

He aligned himself with most of his Democratic colleagues against Gina Haspel, Trump's pick for CIA director, arguing that her record on enhanced interrogation techniques was unacceptable.

And instead of focusing on a politically safe issue in his maiden Senate floor speech, Jones struck a nerve by calling for a dialogue on gun violence after the mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

It's those kinds of positions that have made him a darling of Alabama's progressive minority — and somewhat of a public enemy among the state's conservative majority.

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