At a little over 52,000 square miles, Alabama has a lot of ground for candidates to cover in a statewide election campaign.
Finding the right mix of the Tennessee Valley, Birmingham, River Region, Black Belt, Wiregrass and Gulf Coast has been a challenge for candidates over the years.
And unlike other states similar to Alabama in size, it is strikingly tribal. Five-and-a-half media markets and 67 counties (the Columbus, Ga., market serves Barbour, Chambers, Lee and Russell counties) have created a political balkanization many do not realize.
Although there are commonalities on issues, in a Republican primary setting, a candidate’s success can come down to personality.
Sometimes a candidate can be a little too “Huntsville” for Mobile or vice-versa.
This is not just an Alabama thing. It is applicable all over the country. For Texas, the Dallas candidate might not do well in Houston. In Tennessee, the Chattanooga guy has a hard time connecting with Memphis suburb voters.
You get the idea.
For the sake of Alabama, it is a nuance that is missed by Washington, D.C.-based political consultants every time they come to play here.
“Throw in something in a 30-second spot about Trump and Alabama football. Those rednecks are all the same. They will eat it up.”
It is hardly true. For the sake of a discussion about winning Republican primary elections, there is a magic equation because Alabama is not a monolith.
If it were, anyone from anywhere in the state could plug in the correct elements and have a ready-made campaign.
However, no one from Mobile has won a statewide election for one of the major constitutional offices since Don Siegelman (D) and Steve Windom (R) were elected governor and lieutenant governor, respectively, in 1998.
Bradley Byrne came awfully close in 2010. Had he won the GOP nomination, he would have been a shoo-in for governor, but he was beaten by Robert Bentley and we know how that ended.
When it comes to statewide elections and Mobile, candidates often opt out of the region completely to conserve resources to win the coveted Republican strongholds around Birmingham.
In 2020, the most recent contested U.S. Senate election, the winning candidate, Tommy Tuberville (R), gave only obligatory notice to Mobile and Baldwin counties.
While it is way early in the race for the 2022 Republican U.S. Senate nod, Katie Britt, the darling of the establishment wing of the GOP, is not planning on having a significant presence in southwestern Alabama.
Despite having raised $2.2 million in 23 days since her formal announcement, the Britt campaign does not plan to establish a team for this part of the state.
The reasoning is they do not need a strong showing in Mobile and Baldwin counties to win or to make the runoff.
That approach is not totally wrongheaded. In the 2018 Republican primary for lieutenant governor, the eventual lieutenant governor, Will Ainsworth, won only 6.9 percent of the vote, finishing in a distant third behind then-State Sen. Rusty Glover and Public Service Commission President Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh.
Ainsworth fared a little better in Baldwin County, scoring 13.9 percent of the vote. Where he was strong, outside of this home turf in North Alabama, were Jefferson and Shelby counties.
Politics is a game of addition and ceding anything is not preferred, but with a finite amount of resources, campaigns do what they need to do to win.
Unfortunately, the road to power in Montgomery does not necessarily make its way through Alabama’s first congressional district.
For our part of the state, that is a problem. If campaigns take the approach that Mobile and Baldwin counties are “optional,” that will be reflected in policymaking decisions as well.
One example is the way the Alabama Department of Transportation proposed handling the I-10 Mobile Bay toll bridge.
The Ivey administration and her allies were able to create the perception from Montgomery north that the spoiled brats in Mobile and Baldwin counties wanted a bridge and did not want to pay for it.
“Those people down there want a free bridge to the beach!” one lawmaker proclaimed when asked about the issue during a North Alabama Republican gathering in 2019.
The most egregious example is the Alabama Legislature’s handling of the BP oil settlement funds in 2016, with money taken to shore up Medicaid and repay the Oil and Gas Trust Fund.
There are still hard feelings about the way that was handled all these years later.
The moral of the story is if our part of Alabama is expendable during election season, there is no incentive to avoid treating it like a red-headed stepchild or a runaway province.
How does that change?
The Republican Party runs Alabama. It holds all constitutional offices and has supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature.
Southwest Alabama must find a way to be more relevant and required in Alabama Republican politics.
There are reasons to be optimistic.
Baldwin County is growing. Some of the Republican-leaning precincts in West Mobile are growing.
As population concentration shifts away from Birmingham and into North and South Alabama, perhaps it decentralizes Republican Party politics as well, and that can make everything south of the Dolly Parton Bridge more relevant in statewide elections.
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