Alabama’s partisan political climate has evolved
By Jess Brown, Ph.D
Alabama's political landscape has changed substantially during the last generation. The most dramatic development has been the growth of genuine competition between the two major political parties. Dominance by the Democrats has ended. Republicans in Alabama initially challenged Democrats for only federal offices during the 1960s and 1970s. But, since 1986, the GOP has begun to challenge effectively — and frequently defeat — Democrats for state-level offices. By the mid-1990s, Alabama Republicans started to present effective challenges to Democratic dominance for courthouse positions in selected counties.
No party dominates
Today, the Alabama electorate is neither predominantly Republican nor Democratic. Each party enjoys a solid base of support, consisting of approximately 35 to 38 percent of the vote in a November general election. Both parties can win or lose general elections for statewide offices, such as governor. Neither the "elephant" nor the "donkey" enjoys the loyalty of a firm majority of Alabama's voters. What this means is that candidates for the two major parties spend large sums of money to persuade approximately one-fourth of the voters, or about 300,000 voters in a general election.
This new level of partisan competitiveness is now firmly embedded in the state's political environment, as indicated by the fact that three of the last four general elections for governor were determined by margins of less than four percentage points. Many of the contests for other state-level offices have been decided typically by margins of less than six percent since the controversial 1986 contest for governor, with the Republicans winning the lion's share of these "squeaker" races. Another indicator of party competition is the fact that the Legislature of 30 years ago had no Republicans. Today, it is a Legislature with 30 percent of the seats held by the GOP. Also, Republicans currently occupy almost all state's appellate judgeships; a generation ago, there were no Republicans in these positions.
As a result of this competition, party politics in Alabama has been nationalized, with both of the state parties emulating their national affiliates. In general, the same groups that are prominent in national GOP affairs are active in state GOP affairs. And, the same groups that generally "rule the roost" in national Democratic Party affairs tend to be the most active groups within Alabama's Democratic Party circles.
Not long ago, all factions had to play the game of politics in Alabama as at least nominal Democrats. The Democratic Party is no longer the "holding company" for the full spectrum of groups with substantial clout in the state's political culture. Alabama's Democratic Party is the home for interests related to racial minorities, trial lawyers, educators, and public-sector employees. But, this profile is also true of Democrats in Illinois and Kansas. Alabama's Republican Party is the home for business interests and religious groups of a fundamentalist nature. This profile is also true in Illinois and Kansas. Essentially, the distinctiveness of Alabama's partisan landscape has evaporated.
Stabilized bases of support
Some characterize this current condition as transitional, just a step along the path to Republican dominance in the state. But the GOP should not expect continued growth in support among the electorate. It should not expect to become the party that dominates the political landscape of Alabama in monopolistic fashion as Democrats did from the 1880s until the 1960s. The base of support among voters for the two parties has apparently stabilized since the mid-1990s. A substantial expansion or contraction of voter support for either of the two parties in the near future should not be expected. In effect, election outcomes in general elections are likely to be determined more than ever by candidate personalities/images and issues, not party loyalty.
Democrats, it would seem, should have won most of the recent statewide elections, but they didn't. They received 90 percent or more of the African-American vote, and, therefore, needed only 38 percent of the Caucasian vote for statewide victory. But, on many occasions, Democrats had difficulty in getting 30 percent of the Caucasian vote. Why?
The answer is the two Rs — race and religion. During the 1960s, the Democratic Party, which had historically been viewed as the party preserving racial segregation in Dixie, became viewed as the national instrument for eliminating racial segregation in Dixie. By the 1980s, the Democratic Party also became viewed nationally as the party of the "anything goes" lifestyle. Democrats increasingly were viewed by many Alabamians as prayer-banning, gun-banning, flag-burning, baby-killing, gay-sympathizing liberals. Of course, this latter development did not play well in churches at the crossroads, and white church members in some denominations became more politically energized, as black church members had done a generation earlier. Many of those white churchgoers no longer had a mental picture of Democrats as the party of FDR helping the working poor.
Both of the Rs — race and religion — worked in favor of the Republicans during the past two decades, not just in Alabama, but throughout the nation. Issues relating to one or both of the two Rs dominated the landscape of Alabama's politics to the detriment of state-level Democrats. Economic issues and an agenda of social mobility for the working poor, an agenda that had provided Democrats with a natural advantage in a state like Alabama, simply got camouflaged by the emotional discussions surrounding the two Rs.
Currently, many Democratic candidates no longer even make an effort to appeal to the deeply rooted populist or FDR economic traditions of Alabama politics. They seem to have forgotten that Alabama's most popular Democratic governors during the 20th century (Graves, Folsom Sr. and Wallace) effectively appealed to that tradition. To some extent, today's Democratic candidates and their consultants have become captives of the agenda relating to the two Rs. They seem to think and act only in terms of the two Rs.
Many Democrats conduct campaigns for statewide office with messages that seem to be "Republican light" rather than to present a real alternative on economic issues. Perhaps these Democratic candidates avoid highlighting an economic agenda because to invoke it might interfere with raising campaign funds from a plethora of interest groups that in large measure defend the economic status quo. And, perhaps the candidates of both parties sense the need to feed the media's obvious preference for the highly emotional "red meat" issues relating to the two Rs.
GOP appeals to emotions
Increasingly, Alabama Democrats are comprehending that the contemporary GOP has been very effective at choosing visceral or emotional language to present its agenda, while Democratic candidates often sound more like bland policy wonks than political candidates. Alabama Republicans understand better than Democrats that the realities of electoral politics require an appeal focused on the heart more than the head. Republicans sell a message; Democrats want to explain theirs. Republican candidates also have enjoyed the advantage of saying what they are, with Alabama Democrats often trying to explain what they are not. One party — the GOP — has enjoyed largely 20 years of playing offense; the other party's defense is now haggard and worn, but still competitive.
The Republicans have an economic agenda, but in Alabama, they win or lose elections based on the two Rs. Alabama Democrats have no clearly defined, alternative economic agenda. Democrats try to win elections by constantly inoculating themselves from the adverse effects of the two Rs. Republicans continue to set the agenda, and the mass media often unwillingly assist the GOP with that task.
Democrats must change or lose
In the absence of a restructured agenda and emotional message, Democrats should probably expect to lose many close elections in Alabama and achieve victory only if there is internecine warfare between corporate Republicans and church-based Republicans. Without a restructured agenda, Democrats win only if Republicans are divided.
Democrats have had and will continue to have a difficult time in state-level politics for the foreseeable future. Unless Democrats shift the state's agenda to economic issues and use emotional language to sell that agenda, then one should expect a continuation of the "two R" climate witnessed in recent elections. A shift in the agenda will be difficult in a tactical sense for Democrats, because, as noted earlier, candidates need to raise large amounts of money for a campaign and the media may continue with its current preference for coverage of the two Rs.
So, what we have in Alabama and what we should expect is as follows: (1) competitive elections with neither party clearly in the "driver's seat," (2) elections dominated by issues related to the two Rs, (3) elections where Republicans often achieve narrow victories by getting two-thirds of the Caucasian vote, and (4) Democrats needing either a very divided GOP or a reordered message consisting of more emotional rhetoric.
Dr. Jess Brown is professor of Government and Public Affairs at Athens State University. He made the preceding observations in a speech to the Decatur Rotary Club on Monday.