The six weeks leading up to last week’s Republican primary runoff was a reminder of just how ugly politics can get.
Even without the state’s highest office of governor on the ballot, hundreds of thousands of dollars were pumped into winning an election in which only 12.7 percent of Alabama’s 3.4 million registered voters participated.
Consider this: The marquee race on the ballot pitted State Rep. Will Ainsworth (R-Guntersville) against Public Service Commissioner Twinkle Cavanaugh for the office of lieutenant governor. Beyond being thought of as the second-string governor waiting for a chance to steer the ship of state should the sitting governor step aside, could you ask anyone on the street to explain what exactly is the role of lieutenant governor in Alabama and get a satisfactory response?
Even as an office without a clear purpose, the contest for the GOP lieutenant gubernatorial nomination turned into a free-for-all. Allegations of arrests hit the airwaves. Fiberglass tigers roamed the state.
And for what, a seemingly ceremonial position with an office at the State Capitol?
The Ainsworth-Cavanaugh race could be a warmup for the GOP intraparty bloodletting the state of Alabama badly needs, which could be coming in 2020 when U.S. Sen. Doug Jones (D-Mountain Brook) is up for re-election.
When Jeff Sessions vacated his seat in 2017 to become U.S. Attorney General, there should have been a robust contest convened to determine the nominee in an election for Sessions’ replacement. Instead, we had the bizarre appointment of Luther Strange by disgraced Gov. Robert Bentley. Then the departure of that disgraced governor led to an ill-timed special election called by his successor, Kay Ivey.
Even with Ivey’s effort, we didn’t get it in 2017. The 2017 Republican primary race should have been the opportunity for the best of the best in Alabama Republican Party politics to go head-to-head and weed out the pretenders from the contenders. All of Alabama’s power brokers should have declared an allegiance and laid their cards on the table in backing their guy.
We didn’t get that. We got outsiders enabled by Alabama’s respected elder statesman, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Tuscaloosa), trying to concoct a scenario to have Luther Strange rubber-stamped as the GOP nominee and as U.S. Senator.
If you were a visible figure in Alabama politics at the time and thought maybe this would be an opportunity, given it was an off-year election, for you to hold your current office — you might have been told not to bother. Luther was “the guy.” If you were a political consulting firm, you had threats of being blacklisted if you accepted business from a potential candidate.
There were a few who ignored those signals, most regrettably Roy Moore.
It backfired. Voters rejected Strange, and after some well-timed, well-placed opposition research, they rejected Roy Moore.
Had other serious challengers not been deterred, there might have been an ugly civil war within the Alabama GOP.
For Republicans, that might sound terrible. Enabling a circular firing squad sounds counterintuitive. In a one-party state such as Alabama, where Democrats struggle, it would have been healthy.
Aside from last year’s U.S. Senate special election, going back a decade the GOP candidate always wins statewide. Thus, the GOP primary process involves trade groups and lobbying interests deploying their resources to support the Republican candidate of their choosing.
Those interested parties may or may not include the planters, the old Big Mules, the new Big Mules, the cattlemen’s association, the power company, the health insurance providers, the gambling interests, the pro-lottery advocates, the chamber of commerce types, etc.
They have a favorite candidate. Sometimes they line up behind the same favorite. Sometimes they don’t. If the latter is the case, it could pit some of these well-funded heavyweight groups against one another.
If the heads of these groups are unable to compromise on a candidate in a backroom somewhere, it’s war. Questionably named “super PACs” run dishonest radio spots, mail out glossy flyers, place endless robocalls and display billboards and yard signs.
If you thought the race for lieutenant governor was bad, wait until there is something on the line more relevant than a seemingly ceremonial office.
There are also casualties. Usually, no one is donating hard-earned money to political groups for fun. They want results. They want candidates that will cater to their interests. This scenario is in place for the 2020 U.S. Senate election.
In Montgomery, there is a schism underway among the state’s most influential groups that is sorting itself out with the breakup of the Business Council of Alabama. Mostly it is a lot of egos vying to be Alabama’s ultimate kingmaker.
Last week’s GOP primary was the end of this election cycle for the most part. A formal end comes in November. As studious members of the media, some of us will pretend to take a hard look at both of the candidates, or try to fool ourselves into thinking there is a real contest.
Deep down, we all know the GOP nominee is probably going to win in November. That’s why last Wednesday marked the beginning of the political silly season for 2020.
Most of America will be watching who the Democrats pick to run against Donald Trump. In Alabama, it will be about who Republicans choose to run against Doug Jones.
The speculation as to who that person might be started during Jones’ victory speech in Birmingham last December. Some of the names include Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Fairhope), Alabama Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston), Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Huntsville), State Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) and Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Haleyville).
One longshot possibility is the return of Jeff Sessions, but at age 73 in 2020, would he want to campaign to resume his role as a backbencher in the U.S. Senate?
A knock-down-drag-out election cycle is what Alabama needs: major divisions within the state’s political power structure. Break up the monopolies. Have the best of the best political consultants go head-to-head against one another.
In the end, the last man or woman standing will show who won the will of the voters and those that dwell in the circles of power will be forced to adapt or suffer a future of irrelevance. (Hi, Alabama Education Association.)
Think of it as a bloodletting. All the unhealthy factions that exist for the sake of existing will go away. The rotting good ol’ boy networks will give way to new ones. The results won’t be perfect, but they will be more representative of the constituents in the state.
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