Last week, reports surfaced that Rep. Matt Gaetz from nearby Fort Walton Beach was flirting with the idea of running for the U.S. Senate.
The problem: Gaetz is from Florida.
However, for some Alabama Republicans, Sen. Matt Gaetz, R-Flora-Bama, might not have sounded that bad compared to the paltry field of declared and prospective candidates.
Gaetz later told the Pensacola News Journal he wasn’t serious about his overtures to seek the U.S. Senate in Alabama. For a solid 24 hours, however, it seemed as if Gaetz’s candidacy could have disrupted the race.
The Florida Panhandle Republican unwittingly exposed a problem the Alabama Republican Party needs to address: There is not a very deep GOP bench in the Yellowhammer State.
To be sure, there are a wide variety of GOP candidates — there are appropriators, ideologues, country club-establishment types, rural, suburban, pro-business, pro-law enforcement, etc. But unfortunately there is a dearth of candidates with broad, statewide appeal. Some of that is due to the tribal nature of Alabama politics and the difficulties candidates have to overcome being from one part of the state with limited exposure in other parts of the state.
Another aspect of this is that Republican efforts to promote up-and-comers statewide appear minimal to nonexistent.
In professional baseball, Major League teams have what is known as a farm system. The primary purpose of the farm system is to groom younger players who will potentially play at the highest level one day: on a Major League Baseball team.
Perhaps there is a good crop of “rookie” talent in the Alabama Legislature with the large freshman class. However, the need is now.
Without any young statewide “stars” — the exception being, perhaps, Lieutenant Gov. Will Ainsworth — Alabama politics is vulnerable to carpetbaggers, aspirational figures, celebrities or anyone with a high name identification.
Gaetz is one such example. If you were to throw his name in a poll of 2020 Republican Alabama U.S. Senate hopefuls, he would likely do as well as anyone else. Why? Because of his district’s proximity to Alabama (his congressional district shares a media market with Mobile) and his frequent appearances on cable news.
Some of Trump’s popularity in Alabama comes from a political culture that is not wholly invested in local or state politics. In other words, if Fox News isn’t talking about it, or it isn’t a viral Ben Shapiro tweet, it often isn’t on the political radar of most Alabamians.
Alabama isn’t alone, and Trump’s unpopularity in other states is a reflection of a similar phenomenon. But it presents a problem for the GOP in the upcoming 2020 U.S. Senate race.
In fact, it’s similar in some ways to what happened in the 2017 Republican primary. The slate of candidates included Luther Strange, Mo Brooks and Trip Pittman. But it was Roy Moore who won the GOP nomination in the end, and part of that was due to his high name recognition.
Republicans are hoping to avoid a repeat of 2017 by learning from that election’s mistakes. To be fair, most of the problems the GOP faced stemmed from having a damaged candidate in Moore.
For 2020, the possibility of an outsider winning the Republican nomination looms large. Former Auburn head football coach Tommy Tuberville announced last weekend on social media that he is running, and a more formal announcement is expected soon.
As crazy as it sounds, Tuberville has a shot due to Alabama’s political realities, which require a candidate to have statewide name identification. Bradley Byrne, Del Marsh and Mo Brooks have some statewide name ID, but nowhere near as much as Tuberville.
If the likely GOP voter pool is not engaged in politics at the state and local levels, Tuberville’s chances are higher.
If they are a voter from Mobile, Birmingham, Huntsville, Montgomery or Dothan, they are likely to react to Tuberville by thinking, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard of him — he’s the football coach.” Right now, that’s not the case for Byrne, Brooks, Gary Palmer or Marsh.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing that an outsider could be competitive in a race for a prominent statewide office. Sometimes outsiders are a symptom of the public’s dissatisfaction with the status quo. Donald Trump showed America that in 2016.
When Republicans finally took total control of state politics after the 2010 cycle, there was a sense they had accomplished their initial mission and could begin implementing a more conservative vision for the state. It was the end of governing for the sake of preserving Democratic Party politics.
What got lost was preserving Republican Party politics, at least as we know them. Part of that preservation is having a deep bench of talent to run as candidates in a significant statewide election when the opportunity presents itself.
Five years ago, no one expected Donald Trump would be president, that Jeff Sessions would become attorney general and eventually have his seat filled by a Democrat.
Given the weird nature of politics, where the unexpected is the norm, it would not hurt to be prepared in case of the unexpected.
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