WASHINGTON – Late last month, Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Vestavia Hills, announced he would not be seeking an 11th term in the U.S. House of Representatives. Much like the situation in Alabama’s first congressional district after former Rep. Jo Bonner’s resignation earlier this year, Alabama’s sixth congressional district faces a wide-open free-for-all for Bachus’s replacement.
So once again, an unanticipated game of who has the best way of winning the Republican nomination is going to play out. But winning an election for U.S. Congress in Alabama is not as formulaic as one might think, especially for an outsider. The “who can run the furthest to the right” strategy doesn’t work in mainstream Alabama politics.
Getting elected to federal office in Alabama has always involved forging uncomfortable alliances between the candidate and the ruling classes of Spring Hill, Mountain Brook and Cloverdale and the agriculture lobby wanting to lock in their federal farm subsidies in front of a backdrop of grassroots activism rallying for the candidate.
Running as the right-wing nut-job-John-Birch-Society doesn’t work. The dustbin of Alabama politics is full of such wannabe-upstarts vowing not to kowtow to special interests or the established power structure. Even in the most Tea Party of Tea Party elections cycles in 2010, Dale Peterson and Rick Barber could not even muster double-digit support. And Tim James, a moderate by the standards of those two, could not even make a Republican runoff in the gubernatorial election that year.
If Alabama’s elected representation were as right-wing as those beyond the borders of the Yellowhammer state thought it were, there would be more Louie Gohmerts (R-TX) and Michele Bachmanns (R-MN) representing the state on Capitol Hill.
For example, every year the American Conservative Union puts out its ratings just how “conservative” all 535 members of Congress are. They’re rated on a scale of 1 to 100. In her three terms, Bachmann comes in at a 99.24. However, the Republicans in Alabama’s delegation, who occupy six of our state’s seven seats, have an average of 86.28 with their combined 60 years in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Alabama’s members of Congress are a milquetoast cast of work horses — instead of show horses — trying to steer as much in federal spending back home as possible.
Critics on the left speaking of the intransigence of the Republicans controling the House say it is a body that does not reflect the sentiment of the American public because it is a product of gerrymandering that puts the most entrenched elements in the body. That might be true in the larger states like Texas and California. But in a smaller state like Alabama, the far-right electorate in rural areas is watered down by a more suburban, less conservative electorate.
The same is true on the Senate side of the equation in Alabama. While Sen. Jeff Sessions has become the elder statesman of the conservative movement, he and his counterpart Sen. Richard Shelby aren’t shy when the opportunity arises for bringing certain federal spending to the state. Shelby is regarded as an earmark champion and in his three decades serving Alabama in Washington, he comes in way below the state’s congressional average with a conservative rating of 76.48. Sessions scores higher with a lifetime rating of 94.63, but he still comes in behind his colleagues Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) with a 97 and a 98.86 rating respectively.
The lesson here: The path to Washington from Alabama isn’t fraught with the right-wing demagoguery an outsider may imagine.
Much of that has to do with the state’s history. Following the Civil War, Alabamians consistently elected Democrats as a protest against the outcome of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln was a Republican and it was his Republican Party that transitioned the South out of slavery. Because of that it wasn’t until the mid-1980s when the conservative politicians in the South began to align themselves with the Republican Party.
In the first congressional district race going on now, one of the talking points against Republican hopeful Bradley Byrne now and during his 2010 gubernatorial bid was that he was once a member of the Democratic Party. And while his opponent Dean Young is quick to point that out, Young will simultaneously tout his endorsement from Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, also a former Democrat.
Even though the label of Republican or Democrat might not have necessarily reflected the ideology of a member of the House of Representatives at the time, the characteristics of a far-right so-called Tea Party Republicanism aren’t as apparent as one might think.
To get elected for an office in Alabama in a Republican district in 2013, the trick isn’t to be hard right, hard libertarian or hard left. A candidate might pretend to be hard right, but in actuality you want to be the candidate who can appease all the interests and show you can climb the seniority ladder to score whatever earmark, defense spending or farm subsidy you can showcase back home as a show you can get things done in Washington.