Last week, at its semiannual confab in Montgomery, the Alabama Republican Party voted 58-42 to “indefinitely postpone” a symbolic resolution criticizing Sen. Richard Shelby for his decision to publicize his opposition to Roy Moore, the GOP nominee in last year’s U.S. Senate special election.
That motion was expected to be dead on arrival and defeated by a much wider margin. Instead, the lead-up to the vote to “indefinitely postpone” was contentious, with both sides yelling at each other during the time allotted for debate on the resolution.
Usually, these gatherings of Alabama Republicans do not offer this type of drama. There have been a few over the years, but traditionally they have been events for party politicians, political hopefuls and campaign consultants to mingle and network.
This meeting was the first since Democrat Doug Jones pulled off an unlikely upset in that Senate race and gave his party its first statewide victory since 2008. His victory has given Alabama Democrats the impression they can build on Jones’ success and achieve more upsets this November.
If Alabama Republicans want to ensure that does not happen this year or in future elections, they need to unify.
The fight about whether or not to censure Shelby was just the latest illustration of the long-standing divide between the so-called elites of the party and those that think of themselves as the grassroots. In some cases, it breaks down to another historical division of Alabama politics, which is rural versus urban.
The problem for Alabama Republicans is their Democratic Party opponents are not dealing with these internal struggles. As long as that is the case, many of the GOP candidates seeking office will face aggressive primary opposition from ideological competitors within their own party.
On one side, you will have the underfunded upstart candidate willing to say outrageous things to bolster his chances. On the other, you will have the candidate backed by all the organizations with storefronts in Montgomery and Washington, D.C., spending whatever it takes to get that candidate elected.
The result is a contentious primary fight. Ugly primary contests beget general election losses. That was the case with Mo Brooks, Roy Moore and Luther Strange.
The nasty primary fight resulted in a Moore general election candidacy and, ultimately, a GOP defeat. That was also the case in 1998 when incumbent Republican Gov. Fob James had a long, drawn-out battle against Winton Blount III. James lost to Don Siegelman later that year.
This year’s gubernatorial election could be one such problematic race for Republicans. Incumbent Gov. Kay Ivey faces four other candidates in the June primary — Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, Birmingham evangelist Scott Dawson, Mobile County State Senator Bill Hightower and longshot Michael McAllister, a former corrections officer from Troy.
Each of those candidates has a specific constituency and geographical stronghold. If the race ends up in a runoff situation, then you will likely have another costly and unpleasant primary fight. If the party is unified, a favorite will emerge in the early going, and the primary process will be a more palatable formality.
In this election, early polling shows the incumbent Ivey as the favorite. However, if it goes to a runoff, the race could turn upside-down. This happened to Bradley Byrne, who lost a runoff contest for the GOP nod to Robert Bentley. Byrne was the top vote-getter in the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary, but the circumstances made it possible for Bentley to win in a runoff and later become governor.
Many would say infighting within political parties is just a fact of life. A big family is going to have these disputes, and in the end they will work themselves out and everyone will unite.
Saturday’s eruption in Montgomery at the ALGOP’s Winter Meeting did not offer hope of a unified resolution to the Moore debacle and party divide. Postponing the vote served to minimize the spectacle. If an up-or-down vote had happened, it likely would have ended with a similar result.
Those who thought Shelby broke the rules and should face some punishment, even if symbolic, walked away from the meeting unsatisfied and probably still bitter about it.
Shelby’s defenders came away with a win. While they were likely annoyed by the exercise, they got to defend the honor of Richard Shelby — a politician who probably will not run again in 2022, when his term is up.
As long as this bitterness is festering beneath the surface, it will come up again and again, not just in the governor’s race, but up and down the ballot, and you will have a contentious fight for the party nod just like last year’s special election Republican U.S. Senate primary.
If you are a Democrat in Alabama, you still face an uphill fight. The state is not losing its conservative stripes anytime soon.
The division in the GOP does, however, offer a path for Democrat. First, root for an ugly primary that splits loyal GOP voters. When the general election comes, hope that the losing candidate’s supporters stay home and/or vote Democrat as a show of protest while keeping your voters united.
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