At this early stage of the race for Alabama’s 2020 U.S. Senate Republican nomination, candidates are religiously hitting local meetings of the Alabama Farmers Federation.
The organization has a familiar banner for most of us in Alabama, seen on hundreds of signs around the state, which is “ALFA.” For many, that name is associated with insurance. However, throughout the state, in all 67 counties, having ALFA on your side can make or break a campaign.
There have been many organizations rise and fall in Alabama politics. Who can forget the Alabama Education Association under the leadership of Paul Hubbert, who essentially served as Alabama’s shadow governor from the balconies of each legislative chamber of the State House in Montgomery?
There is also the Business Council of Alabama (BCA), which is the modern incarnation of the so-called Big Mules, a term used to describe the business and industrial elites of state. Despite some recent drama, the BCA has rallied to become a force in state politics once again.
For a good chunk of the previous century, the Big Mules and big agriculture in Alabama created an alliance to control the state. The Planters, as they were known, consisted of the top cotton plantations of the Black Belt.
The Big Mule–Planter coalition was one of the favored boogeymen for populist politicians throughout the 1900s.
However, shifts in demographics, including the hemorrhaging of population in the agriculture-heavy Black Belt, and changes in agricultural technology made such a coalition less relevant in the grand scheme of Alabama politics.
What has not changed is that Alabama remains an agriculture-heavy state. Agriculture accounts for roughly one of every 4.6 workers in Alabama, with agricultural, forestry and related industries accounting for some 580,000 jobs in total. That equates to a $70 billion industry that is not isolated in one region of the state.
Politically, however, farmers function as one, and not as a top-down political force. Instead, it operates from the bottom up, where every county chapter of ALFA has input in what political posture the organization ultimately takes.
If you attend any given ALFA meeting this election season, regardless of the night of the week or how remote the location may seem, you’re likely to see at least one of the U.S. Senate candidates vying for Alabama’s GOP nod: former Auburn head football coach Tommy Tuberville, U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore or State Sen. Arnold Mooney.
You are also sure to see one of the candidates vying for the Republican nomination for Alabama’s open spot on the Court of Civil Appeals, State Rep. Matt Fridy or Alabama Assistant Attorney General Rich Anderson.
They all know if you can count on the ALFA endorsement, your chances of electoral success increase exponentially.
While the state’s farmers are not necessarily a direct representation of the state as a whole, they come much closer to it than the business interests in Alabama politics.
That’s not to say agriculture and the state’s electorate are together on everything. Property tax rates on timberland and immigration policy might be two examples of where farmers have to part ways with the consensus of the Republican voter for their own self-interests.
However, they are not out there championing Common Core standards or a gasoline tax increase, two of the hot-button topics of the legislative session earlier this year.
Winning the ALFA endorsement has its perks. Its members hand out sample ballots at voting precincts around the state, which may influence the less-educated voter about down-ballot contests — especially for the voter purely motivated by President Donald Trump on the ballot as their reason for participating in the day’s primary.
You also may have the opportunity to post campaign signage in any of the countless acres of farmland along major thoroughfares around the state.
As for the 2020 U.S. Senate race, it is not clear the Alabama Farmers Federation will get involved until after the primaries.
There is not an obvious likely winner of the nomination. Without a “sure thing,” there would be a risk of backing a candidate and having that candidate lose, later having to curry favor with a candidate the organization opposed. It is a dilemma with which many of the big-whale donors and influential organizations in state politics are grappling.
Certainly, Tuberville is ahead in many of the polls, but questions remain about his candidacy. Can he win in a low-turnout runoff four weeks after the primary without Trump on the ballot? What if he is in a runoff with Byrne, who looks to be better funded and will have the benefit of high turnout for a possible Alabama first congressional district GOP runoff in his own backyard?
For that reason, you could see ALFA and others sit this one out until the next round.
That is not stopping candidates from trying. They still want to be in the good graces of farmers during campaign season and aware of their issues.
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