A year from now, another presidential election will have come and gone. It may mean four more years of what we have now. It may mean a transformed Washington with a Democrat with a completely different vision for the country headed into the inauguration.
When was the last time — if ever — has what was going on in politics 365 days out meant anything to the next election? Do you even remember what was happening in 2015?
Last Saturday, Alabama Democrats did something that, although it might not bear fruit for November 2020, could change the landscape beyond that. If the election of State Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, stands the test of the judiciary, it could mark the start of a long and arduous journey back to relevancy for the state’s Democrats.
By now, you are probably aware of the saga of the Alabama Democratic Party. From Reconstruction through most of the 20th century, Democrats dominated Alabama politics.
Aside from the 1964 presidential election, in which five Republicans were able to ride the coattails of then-GOP presidential nominee Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., to the U.S. House of Representatives, running as anything other than Democrat was an exercise in futility.
Southerners, mostly still bitter over the Civil War and the abuses of the Reconstruction era, remained loyal to the Democratic Party for well over a century. It was not until the disappointing presidency of Jimmy Carter in 1976 that Alabama started to show signs of evolution to the Republican Party.
Since Ronald Reagan’s victory in the 1980 presidential election, Alabama has gone for the GOP nominee in presidential contests. That did not mean the state went for Republicans in other elections. That would take time. It was not until Guy Hunt’s victory in 1986 that a Republican occupied the governor’s mansion. It took until 2010 for Republicans to finally wrestle complete control of Montgomery away from Democrats and control all statewide elected offices and the legislature.
The lesson here is, even with the political climate in your favor, do not expect your political opponents to go away quietly in the night.
The U.S. Senate election win for Democrat Doug Jones in 2017 was a blip on the radar screen. Jones defeating a flawed candidate in a low-turnout special election does not necessarily mean a changing of the guard in Alabama. The lopsided vote totals for Republicans in 2018 proved Jones’s win was nothing more than an anomaly.
However, for the first time since Don Siegelman’s gubernatorial win in 2002, Alabama saw where Republicans were vulnerable. Traditionally GOP-leaning precincts in Tuscaloosa and Lee counties, where there is a strong presence of academia, went for Jones. The “Over the Mountain” suburbs of Birmingham went for Jones. Voters in the Cloverdale neighborhood of Montgomery and the Spring Hill neighborhood of Mobile showed they were open to voting for a Democrat given the right circumstances.
That 2017 special election gave Democrats an idea of where they could get the most “bang” for their buck in future elections.
When November 2018 rolled around, Democrats didn’t even bother. It was back to business as usual for the party under the leadership of Nancy Worley and Joe Reed.
England’s election as the Alabama Democratic Party chairman gives the opposition party a reason to be hopeful. However, just like when a beleaguered college football team fires its head coach and hires a big name, it takes time for the program to rebound.
Even Nick Saban was not an automatic success at the University of Alabama.
In the short term, Democrats are losing local elected officials all around the state. County officials in Colbert and Monroe counties defected to the Republican Party last month.
Even these counties, where politicians have staved off the trend of Republican dominance, are seeing the difficulty of running against a GOP nominee with the benefit of Donald Trump’s coattails to ride on a general election ballot in 2020.
Donald Trump will not be on the ballot again after 2020. Indeed, there will be opportunistic Republicans attempting to rekindle the magic of Trump. But just like most surprisingly successful things the second time around, it is difficult to match what happened the first time.
Alabama Democrats are best served planning for a post-Trump era in America and Alabama politics. Yes, it will be difficult with some of the far-left policy positions of national Democrats with values that are out of line with the culture of the state.
Much like Republicans in Democrat-leaning states, there will have to be wiggle room for candidates on policy for Democrats to make any inroads in Alabama.
In the 2018 election cycle, Democrats who were nominated to run against incumbent Republicans in congressional races ran on national issues. All six of those elections in a political cycle that was not favorable for the Republicans were solid victories for the incumbents.
Often people will say, “Vote for the man, not the party.” In Alabama, to have the opportunity to vote for the right man, you have to win favor with the party. Political parties matter, and perhaps soon, for the first time in a long time, the Democratic Party will matter.
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