This upcoming presidential election has already seen some wrinkles unusual for Alabama, particularly with the amount of attention paid to the state by the candidates.
But there is one overlooked outcome that would certainly shatter any precedents: What if on March 2, 2016, the state awoke to see former Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, an African-American, become the state’s choice for the Republican nomination?
Republicans in Alabama choosing Carson might not be a huge surprise, but it would certainly be historic.
According to a Sept. 3 Gravis Marketing Poll, the Alabama Republican electorate currently reflects the sentiments of the national electorate. Real estate mogul Donald Trump has a commanding 22-point lead over his closest competitor with 38 percent of respondents designating him as their first choice.
Trump’s closest competitor is, however, Carson.
Carson comes in at 16.7 percent, a solid second place over third place former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who gets 4.9 percent of the Republican vote. While not exactly striking distance for Carson, one would have to like his chances if Trump for whatever reason decided he was going to bow out of contention for the Republican primary in the next few months.
In which column would that 38 percent go? It’s hard to imagine it would go to any of the so-called establishment candidates — John Kasich, Bush, Chris Christie or the like. Carson, along with Ted Cruz and possibly Carly Fiorina, would be in line to get that support.
With Cruz in at 4.1 percent and Fiorina at 2.3 percent, Carson already has a sizable advantage in Alabama.
African-Americans traditionally haven’t fared well in statewide elections in post-Reconstruction Alabama. In fact, it wasn’t until 2004 that Wayne Sowell became the first African-American candidate from a major party to be nominated for one of Alabama’s two U.S. Senate seats.
More recently, in the 2010 race for Alabama’s gubernatorial nomination, there was a lot of buzz about then-Rep. Artur Davis, a Birmingham Democrat who looked to have a lot of upside in his bid.
But when Alabama Democrats went to the polls to pick their nominee, they overwhelming chose then-State Agricultural Commissioner Ron Sparks by a nearly two-to-one margin. Inevitably, Sparks went on to lose to Alabama’s current governor, Robert Bentley.
Davis never fully recovered from that defeat. Aside from a brief flash at the 2012 Republican National Convention, the former Democratic Alabama congressman flirted with a run to become a Republican congressman in Northern Virginia, and last month lost his bid to become mayor of Montgomery to incumbent Todd Strange, who beat him by nearly 30 percentage points.
In 2008, Barack Obama won Alabama’s Democratic primary by 15 points over Hillary Clinton. Both of those candidates made a stop in Alabama for Selma’s commemoration of the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” civil rights march during that cycle. However, the black vote in Alabama helped Barack Obama carry the state in what turned out to be a heated contest between the two candidates.
In this upcoming election, most analysts expect the black vote in Alabama to go for Hillary Clinton — even if Vice President Joe Biden were to enter the 2016 race — putting Alabama solidly in the win column for Clinton.
Wouldn’t that be an interesting contrast — Alabama’s Democratic Party electorate votes for a 68-year-old white woman for its choice as the presidential nominee and Alabama’s heavily white Republican Party selects a 64-year-old black man born in Detroit, Michigan, as its choice for the party’s nomination?
Such a gesture would really be a big winner for the Alabama Republican Party, which could stand to improve its efforts to recruit black candidates for office.
The Alabama GOP could look to South Carolina as a model.
In that state, the Republican Party rallied around Tim Scott, who served as the representative for the state’s first congressional district, and now as one of the state’s U.S. Senators, having filled the seat vacated by Jim DeMint, who stepped down at the end of 2012 to lead the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, D.C.
Although liberals often target Scott for criticism — recall when a NAACP chapter head called Scott a “ventriloquist dummy” — he as a Republican U.S. senator serves to negate the argument that conservatism is rooted in racism.
Bottom line: If Ben Carson could pull out a win in Alabama, even if he does not go on to win the Republican presidential nomination, it would say to party elders that an African-American candidate can win as a Republican in Alabama.
Republicans such as Jeb Bush love to use the line that politics is a game of addition, not subtraction, in making a push for immigration reform.
A prominent black candidate won’t immediately swing the state’s Black Belt region to the GOP. But it would be a start and at least show there is a path to success if you’re a qualified black candidate. If statewide Republicans want to win the war of ideas against Democrats, this might be a good place to start.