For 136 years, the Democratic Party reigned supreme throughout state government in Alabama. In most cases outside of a few Republican strongholds in the state, if you weren’t a Democrat, you might as well not even waste the effort to get on the ballot.
Part of this electoral pattern was a protest of the Civil War and Reconstruction Era. Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican president and led the Union in the Civil War — changing the South to put it mildly. It took Alabama voters some time to get beyond that.
But it was also in part because Democrats in power in Alabama were able to rig a system to make any loyal opposition movement in state politics a frivolous pursuit. That included some the stumbling blocks it took the Civil Rights movement to eventually overcome — poll taxes, literacy tests and gerrymandered precincts.
Ironically, the Civil Rights movement’s efforts further aided the Democratic Party’s hold. Democratic Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson played pivotal roles during the Civil Rights Era to expand the right to vote.
In presidential elections going back to the Reconstruction Era, Democrats for the most part could count on Alabama with few exceptions: Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrat bid in 1948, the 1960 electoral vote split between Kennedy and Harry Byrd, Barry Goldwater’s Republican bid in 1964, George Wallace’s Independent bid in 1968 and Richard Nixon’s landslide 1972.
Ronald Reagan’s presidential run in 1980 was the beginning of the end for Democratic Party rule in the state. Reagan began the turn of the tide, slowly shifting the party make up in the state.
The next big seismic shift happened in 1994. Two years prior, a Southern governor from nearby Arkansas named Bill Clinton was elected president. Many expected Clinton would have a shot in other Southern states. While Clinton carried Arkansas, Louisiana, Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky, he did not pick up Alabama.
During the national midterms in 1994, Republicans scored a wave victory under Newt Gingrich. Then-Democratic Sen. Richard Shelby, who wasn’t up for reelection again until 1998, saw enough after that and switched to the Republican Party.
For the next 16 years, Democrats with the aid of groups like the Alabama Education Association (AEA) teachers’ union, managed to continue to hold onto the state legislature and win a statewide office here and there.
Even in 2008, there were signs of a potential Democratic Party resurgence — something to build on as Democrats were able to win three out of the seven state’s Congressional seats. But dissatisfaction with President Barack Obama was too much for the state’s Democratic apparatus and its allies to stave off. In 2010 in a national wave election, 136 years of Democrat rule in Alabama ended.
After that, the Republican-controlled legislature and Republican Gov. Robert Bentley instituted measures that made it harder for the likes of AEA and other pro-Democrat lobbies to wield the same level of influence as they had once had.
Now Alabama Democrats are in the wilderness.
The state party apparatus is heavily in debt, much of which accumulated back in 1999 when then-Gov. Don Siegelman bet heavily on a failed lottery campaign. The party has never been able to recover from that. Meanwhile, its Republican Party counterpart has thrived with fundraising and that had led to electoral success.
Currently, the Alabama Democratic Party is plagued with infighting. It’s often the butt of jokes.
Seemingly, the only means of scoring political points against the GOP has been for Democrats to push allegations of corruption in GOP-controlled state government. Much of that push seems to be centered on Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard, who is reportedly tied to an Attorney General’s investigation regarding political corruption in his home county of Lee.
That, however, will not be the magic bullet Democrats need to return to relevance in Alabama politics. In fact, most Alabamians are so disgruntled with President Obama that he has, in essence, poisoned the well for current Democrats to have a chance in the state.
The “all politics is local” theorem doesn’t seem to be absolute when comes to in-state elections. When President George W. Bush was suffering late in his presidency, Democrats had some success in the 2006 midterms statewide. In 2008, with a then-popular Barack Obama on the ballot, they had success in Congressional elections. And then two years later after Obama fell out of favor, they lost everything.
For the meantime, national politics will be a lot for a local Democrat to overcome, but that doesn’t mean things can’t line up again in a favorable way on that same national level. If you’re slightly left-of-center or moderate and you want to be involved in politics, for the most part you’re going to have to wait it out and hope the state’s attitude changes toward Democrats.
Or you could run as a Republican and be what some conservatives like to call a “RINO,” a “Republican in Name Only.” But you dare not let Republican Party elders catch on to you doing that.
For now, statewide Democrats could do themselves a favor by adopting a mainstream message that would appeal in places beyond the state’s Democratic strongholds, which for now are the state’s handful of urban areas and the region known as the Black Belt.
An occasional read of the Anniston Star editorial page (sort of a standard for liberal thought on a state level) continuously complains about Republicans and their lack of willingness to address Alabama’s woes — economic, education, infrastructure.
Those are the same problems, however, that have been plaguing the state for years and long predates the GOP’s rise in Montgomery.
Will statewide Democrats get it together, adopt some sort of unifying message (hint: legalized gambling isn’t a unifying message) and if so, can they make the unlikely comeback?
I wouldn’t bet on it.