The tide of political control usually comes and goes. Nationwide for Republicans, though, it has remained high for quite some time. Much focus is given to Republican dominance at the federal level through the GOP’s control of the presidency, Senate and House of Representatives, yet often overlooked, and of greater importance, is their dominance at the state level.
Prior to 2010, Republicans possessed legislative majorities in both chambers in as few as 14 states. That number now stands at 32. Tying a 94-year-old record, Republicans currently hold 33 governorships across the country. Their political control at the state level is vast and widespread. So pervasive is that control, based on the latest census figures, it’s been estimated that the majority of Americans now live in a state that is either totally or partially controlled by Republicans.
The election of Barack Obama as president may have been a watershed moment in American history, but one thing is equally for sure: It also ushered in a wave of Republican political dominance on the state level unlike anything seen in the modern political era.
This is a crucial point because, as has been observed, “state legislative races [along with other elected state positions] shape the foundation of government.” Again, most focus, attention and energy is usually given to what happens at the federal level, but it’s that level of political control closer to where individuals live that is often the most impactful. On that level, the Republican tide has changed the political landscape of America.
Establishing a beachhead and countering this Republican wave of dominance on the state level now seems to be a sincere focus of Democrats around the country. It’s even evident here in Alabama. In 2016, the majority of statewide and local positions on the ballot went uncontested by Democrats. A “Vote for One” instruction phrase was written under each position listed on the ballot, but for many of those positions, Alabama voters often only had one choice — a Republican candidate.
2018 seems to have brought new energy and interest among Democrats in Alabama. A look at the list of Democrats who qualified to run for statewide office this year shows a significant increase as opposed to 2016.
There are six Democratic candidates for governor, one for lieutenant governor, two for attorney general and two for state auditor as well as candidates for the Public Service Commission, along with varied state legislative seats, the Alabama Supreme Court and circuit and district judgeships. This appears to be the year of Democratic re-engagement.
However, if Democrats are to make any headway in regaining political relevance statewide, they have to be intentional and purposeful in their strategy and actions. In an interview, Christian Smith, president of Bay Area Young Democrats, made this point clear. She noted that a party has to “build in to build out” and used the Republicans as an example.
Smith observed that for the last couple of decades Republicans focused on winning local seats such as county treasurer, revenue commissioner, sheriff, district attorney, etc. And whether it was in Alabama or other states across the country, they replicated this formula county by county and started increasing their presence in state legislatures as well.
She noted that 2010, the year Republicans gained control of the Alabama State House after a 136-year drought, came as no surprise to her. They had been putting in the work, step by step, for years, and 2010 saw the culmination of those very intentional and purposeful efforts.
Smith knows a little something about intentional and purposeful. In 2012, at the age of 25, with only $5,000 in her campaign war chest she ran for Mobile County Treasurer. She wasn’t given much of a chance. But through a well-crafted strategy and disciplined execution she garnered more than 77,000 votes throughout the county, losing the election by only 4 points.
Since then, she has gone on to advise and manage campaigns as well as organize the local Young Democrats chapter here in Mobile. Smith says the focus should always be on building up local grassroots support and activism, recruiting quality candidates, and the local and state party working in a cohesive and unified fashion. If Democrats in Alabama are going to make any political gains, if the goal is to return to political relevance, those components have to be present.
Many Democrats locally and statewide have been rightly buoyed by the Doug Jones special election win in December and by the results of special election races in other states where Democrats have been victorious. But, just as in sports, so it is with politics: One can’t win by enthusiasm and emotion alone. Candidate strength and skill, sound organizational structure, disciplined and meaningful messaging, among other things, become very important. In other words, enthusiasm has to be matched with intentionality and purposefulness.
In an email interview with Sam Fisher, Ph.D., of the University of South Alabama’s Political Science Department I posed the question: “Does the Doug Jones win portend or serve as a foreshadowing of a possible larger political realignment in the state, or is it more of a momentary phenomenon?”
Dr. Fisher replied: “I don’t foresee, in the short term, a [political] realignment. However, I do think that Democrats, if they field good candidates, could have greater success in winning more seats in the state Legislature. Alabama is conservative and unlikely to change but there is a place for moderate/conservative Democrats, especially on economic issues.”
Alabama is one of the 26 state governments in the United States under total Republican control. If Democrats in Alabama intend to reverse the tide of Republican supremacy, they must be willing to engage with intentionality and purposefulness in efforts and actions whose fruits may not be seen right away, but through persistence can yield meaningful results over time. The Republican tide did not rise overnight and neither will the Democrats. But they can rise.