Last Sunday, Sen. Jeff Sessions shocked political observers and insiders by endorsing Republican presidential front runner Donald Trump at a rally in Madison, Alabama.
Sessions told the crowd — estimated to be around 30,000 people — at the Madison High School Stadium that Trump’s stances on immigration and trade make him the best candidate to be the nation’s next commander-in-chief.
“This isn’t a campaign, this is a movement,” Sessions proclaimed. “The American people are not happy with their government.”
“There is an opportunity this year and we have the opportunity this Tuesday — it may be the last opportunity we have to fix illegal immigration. Donald Trump will do it,” he added.
Sessions, while certainly the most popular politician in present-day Alabama politics and perhaps the most popular since Gov. George Wallace, doesn’t necessarily reflect the sentiments of the rank and file within the state’s Republican hierarchy.
Although Trump may be the most popular with Alabama voters, prominent elected Republicans are all over the board on the 2016 Republican presidential primary contest. Gov. Robert Bentley threw his support behind fellow governor John Kasich (R-Ohio) early in the contest. Former Alabama GOP chairman Bill Armistead is heading Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Florida) effort in Alabama. Rep. Mo Brooks, a very popular congressman in the northern part of the state, and Kayla Moore, the wife of Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, both support Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
This mix of presidential support from all over the state highlights a broader problem within the Alabama Republican Party, which is a party in disarray.
There are looming questions about Bentley and his personal life. Republican Speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives Mike Hubbard is under pressure from his own party to resign as speaker as he faces 23 felony ethics counts in court. There’s the squandered political career of Attorney General Luther Strange, who once appeared to be the heir apparent for Sen. Richard Shelby’s U.S. Senate seat, but he has fallen out of favor with a lot of Republicans. And of course, there is Shelby himself, who is on the verge of overstaying his welcome in Washington by being taken to the brink by an upstart candidate in Jonathan McConnell.
Six years ago, things looked very promising for Alabama’s Republican Party. Riding the Tea Party wave, the GOP wrested control of the state government from the Democratic Party for the first time since Reconstruction and ended decades of the Alabama Education Association teachers’ union influence.
Things were going to be different in Montgomery. There were promises to end cronyism and halt the system of the good ol’ boy network running the show. Turns out that was easier said than done.
Even with all these glaring deficiencies, the Republican Party is likely to still dominate in the fall elections. So the question is, without an electoral incentive to straighten up, will things get better for the party?
It’s this sort of disarray that has led to Trump’s rise nationally. There’s dissatisfaction with Washington, D.C., because of promises broken by the Republican-led Congress and a visceral dislike of President Barack Obama. Any other year, Cruz and Trump wouldn’t be still in the race. Instead, we’d probably be watching an ongoing fight between Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for the GOP nod, with the Florida GOP primary later this month being the definitive race.
There’s an ill-advised effort underway in the Alabama legislature by State Sen. Gerald Dial (R-Lineville) that would change how ethics cases are adjudicated in state government. The bill, SB279, would allow a politician or other state employee to go before the Ethics Commission and ask for an informal opinion on any activity that may have ethics questions.
If the commission’s opinion is in favor of said ethically questionable activity, then it would later give immunity if the activity is thought to be criminally prosecutable.
Why just not commit the ethically questionable activity to begin with? That’s the kind of thing within state politics that was supposed to have come to an end back in January 2011.
Alabama Republicans should look closely at the Super Tuesday results. There are lessons to be learned. There’s clearly a populist vibe within the electorate. Shenanigans with state ethics laws and other impressions that everything isn’t on the up and up could someday lead to a Trump phenomenon in Alabama.
If things continue at this pace, such a scenario could exist that in 2018, when Alabama goes to elect its next governor, a candidate who bucks Republican orthodoxy or even a Democrat could have a fighting chance.
It’s not clear how that would manifest itself, because there is nothing like Trump within Alabama’s borders. But whatever it might be wouldn’t sit well with the country club power structure currently running the show in Alabama.
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