Over the last decade, Alabama has completed its 30-year transformation to a one party state. The blue-dog Democrats that could win local elections down-ballot from Republicans in national elections are now a footnote in the state’s political history.
Gone with that seemed to be the Yellowhammer State’s relevancy in national politics. Alabama was going to be just another state in flyover country such as Nebraska, Kansas or Utah that is reliably Republican and not worthy of too much focus.
Aside from the random personalities making waves — such as George Wallace and, of course Roy Moore — Alabama would, in theory, be a small, unimportant part of the national political picture.
It turned out just the opposite happened.
Beginning in 2008, Alabama moved up its presidential primary. Given this new one-party status, Republican presidential hopefuls sought to woo voters in the presidential primary. With their efforts came lots of media coverage, meaning the psychological makeup of the Alabama voter had to be scrutinized as if it were some peculiar alien life form.
Would voters go for John McCain or Mike Huckabee? Also, as a side note, how would Alabama’s predominantly black Democrat voters respond to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama?
Four years later, the same thing happened on the Republican side — would it be Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum? At the time, both of those candidates made a play for the state, with Santorum coming out on top.
At that point, Alabama had established itself as a player in Republican presidential politics. On Election Day, it wouldn’t be as important. But in the seemingly never-ending presidential election cycles that are now part of American politics, an early strong showing in Alabama would demonstrate a pathway to the party’s nomination.
Other happenings put the state in the spotlight. A little over a year later, then-Rep. Jo Bonner would resign from Congress to take a post at the University of Alabama.
An off-cycle election, with political consultants and campaign reporters with idle time on their hands, made Alabama’s First Congressional District the talk of the Beltway.
That was the state’s first taste of the so-called Washington, D.C., establishment infiltrating the election process. Groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Rifle Association spent big on the congressional election to help Bradley Byrne defeat Dean Young. Four years later, we would see it again.
In 2015, Donald Trump emerged on the political scene. After his famous ride down the escalator at Trump Tower in New York City, he made Mobile’s Ladd-Peebles Stadium the site of one of his first big splashes.
National media types were scratching their heads — Why Mobile, Alabama? The August 21, 2015, edition of USA Today offered a front-page explainer on how Mobile was uniquely positioned geographically, with tentacles that stretch from New Orleans to Tallahassee.
Also, Trump’s playbook seemed to have Sen. Jeff Sessions’ fingerprints all over it.
Trump had a dominating win in the 2016 Alabama GOP presidential primary and Sessions was a big reason why. At the opposite end of the state, Alabama’s junior senator gave Trump his first significant endorsement.
After Trump won, Sessions had his pick of posts in the administration. Little did we know that Sessions’ departure would set up one hell of a finale in this chapter of Alabama politics.
The three-way race that developed between Luther Strange, Mo Brooks and Roy Moore for the Republican nod captured the intrigue of political watchers from afar. Sure, it would be a low-turnout event, but Strange and his allies leaned heavily on some of those same parties we saw in the 2013 special election for Alabama’s first congressional district House seat.
Along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the NRA, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell spent heavily. Once the primary was settled and we went to the runoff phase, it became an election about establishment versus non-establishment, with the caveat the non-establishment president was backing the establishment candidate.
Luther Strange lost, and for the next few days some implied it was a sign of weakness from Trump. Then, as we know now, the whole saga of Roy Moore’s past came to light and it became an entirely different ballgame.
A safe GOP seat in Alabama is up for grabs. A Democrat could win statewide for the first time since 2006.
Is there another state in recent memory where such a hyper focus has been placed by the national political media? Has there been a reason for political reporters to camp out in South Dakota and explain how a voter in the Badlands differs from that of suburban Sioux Falls? Or how will evangelicals in western Kansas respond to the Great Kansas City Young Republican revoking their endorsement of a candidate?
Alabama has had a distinct place in our national political discussion on and off for the past decade. And regardless of who wins next week, Alabama will probably continue to make national political headlines.
If it’s Roy Moore, the circus will continue. A Senate Ethics Committee investigation with a behind-closed-doors hearing that isn’t open to the public will follow.
If it is Doug Jones, however, for awhile it will be a unique story everyone will want to talk about — an Alabama Democrat in the U.S. Senate, which sounds something like a Bizarro World, inspirational version of Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”
Then in 2020, when the seat is up for re-election, we’ll get to do this all over again.