CLEVELAND, Ohio – There was no consensus candidate for the Republican presidential nomination back when U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions endorsed the eventual party nominee, Donald Trump, at the end of February.
Two days after Sessions’ endorsement, however, the state went big for Trump. Despite visits from his opponents at the time — Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Marco Rubio (Florida) and Ben Carson — no one came close to competing with Trump in Alabama.
For that election outcome and Sessions’ early endorsement, Alabama was rewarded with a front-row position and a prominent role at the Republican National Convention.
With a few “Roll Tides” and a well-placed “War Eagle” by Alabama Republican Party chairwoman Terry Lathan, Sessions had the honor of formally nominating Trump for president at the party’s convention last week.
During an interview on the convention floor, Sessions told Lagniappe he also attributed the state’s prime floor position to the state’s two big Trump rallies, the first nearly a year ago at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile and the second at the Madison City Stadium outside Huntsville — the site of Sessions’ endorsement of Trump.
“It’s great to have them in a front-row seat,” Sessions explained to Lagniappe as delegates eagerly waited to get a photo with the junior Alabama senator, minutes before Trump formally accepted the GOP nomination.
“It was those two big rallies that Trump had in Alabama that were stunning,” he continued. “I think both of them helped. The first one was in Mobile last August and then Huntsville had one that I endorsed him at. That was a great crowd, too.”
It’s an unprecedented phenomenon for Alabama to get special treatment at these events. In the previous two Republican presidential primaries, the state went to the two runners-up. In 2008, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who finished second to eventual nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona, got the Yellowhammer State’s nod. In 2012, Alabama went for former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who finished behind eventual nominee former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Without that electoral support or any prominent endorsements for either McCain or Romney, Alabama’s delegation wasn’t seated in a noticeable place on the convention floors in 2012 in Tampa, Florida, and in 2008 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Long-time Alabama Republican Party activist Terry Lathan, a seven-time convention attendee, told Lagniappe the Alabama delegation was giving the Cleveland proceedings high marks.
“By the Alabama delegates, their response to me — a lot of them, they are loving it,” Lathan said. “The ones of us that have done it many, many times are saying this is one of the best-run conventions they’ve been to. And we’ve been to some great ones, too.”
She also noted the differences between the 2008 and 2012 contests and this year’s contest and credited Sessions’ relationship with Trump for the VIP treatment.
“This is a little bit out of our pattern, to tell you the truth,” the ALGOP chairwoman said. “Alabama went with the eventual nominee of the party. Not only did they go with Mr. Trump, they went with him at a 3-to-1 margin. That was a record-breaking primary we had on March 1. We had over 860,000 primary voters. I mean, that’s not an accident. That’s a message.”
What is that message?
Voters in Alabama bucked some of the party elders with their overwhelming support of Trump. Aside from Sessions and a handful of state legislators backing the eventual nominee, there were not a lot of early takers on backing him, despite two huge rallies at the opposite ends of the state.
The state’s top elected Republican, Gov. Robert Bentley, backed Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s candidacy. Rep. Mike Rogers, whose district includes the eastern part of the state, went with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and Rubio was endorsed by 31 Republican state legislators.
Ironically, despite finishing second in Alabama’s primary, runner-up Cruz received very few notable endorsements within the state.
The Republican Party as a whole does have some work to do to repair its image after a sex scandal involving the governor, a now-former state House Speaker who was ousted after a corruption conviction and a state Supreme Court Chief Justice who seems to be constantly out of touch with reality.
Perhaps the best path forward would be to embrace some of the principles espoused by Trump and Sessions. That is where the enthusiasm in state politics seems to be.
The big takeaway from Cleveland is that Alabama seems to be in line with the national mood on politics, where before it was an outlier not only nationally but with Republicans as well. Credit voters for sticking with Sessions, who somehow even made his U.S. Senate colleague Sen. Richard Shelby find religion on issues like Wall Street cronyism and immigration.
Montgomery would do well to take note. How many months of coverage were given to Bentley’s wall at his beach mansion in Gulf Shores? How did it look when former House Speaker Mike Hubbard peeled out in a black Corvette in Opelika after the verdicts were read on his conviction?
That’s the kind of stuff voters seem most upset about. It is ironic that it took a billionaire New York City real estate mogul to figure it out.