One of the things we learned from this last United States Senate special election is that the outcome of statewide elections in Alabama are no longer decided by rural voters, but by urban voters.
The situation is not like it was 50 or 100 years ago in Alabama, when a politician running for statewide office could win by going from town to town — to places such as Monroeville, Ozark, Cullman and Hamilton — drop the tailgate of a pickup truck and deliver a stump speech in the town square.
The lesson is that no matter how motivated rural voters might be, if appropriately aligned and motivated, the voters in Birmingham, Mobile, Huntsville and Montgomery come out to vote, and a Democrat can be elected to a major statewide office in ruby-red Alabama.
Political power comes out of Alabama’s cities. Now that we know this, how might it break down in the primary process? Will the state see a run of candidates coming out of Birmingham dominating Alabama politics?
For 20 years, Jeff Sessions, from Alabama’s rural Black Belt, represented Mobile as one of the state’s most prominent politicians. Before him, there was former Gov. Don Siegelman and Vietnam War hero Jeremiah Denton.
Hailing from Mobile and winning a statewide election, however, has not always been easy. Over the years, as the state’s biggest or second-biggest city, Mobile is treated like the Jan Brady of Alabama.
Culturally, Mobile is different from the rest of Alabama. A robust Catholic presence with the celebration of Mardi Gras, etc., has made it unlike the rest of the state.
Before the completion of Interstate 65’s Dolly Parton … err, General W.K. Wilson Jr. Bridge in 1980, and the old Cochrane Bridge in the 1920s over the Mobile River long before that, the city was geographically cut off from Birmingham and Montgomery.
Even after Port City access improved, for people in Montgomery and points beyond Mobile has often seemed as though it were in a different state. Like Florida. Mobile’s adjacent bedroom communities, such as Baldwin County, similarly have an “other” reputation, at least to outsiders who see Mobile, Fairhope, Foley and Gulf Shores as all the same thing.
This phenomenon has negatively impacted southwest Alabama’s ability to promote hometown favorites to higher office.
That is not to say Mobile has not been a player. For decades the city had a seat at the table with the Big Mule industrialist-Black Belt planter coalition that dominated state politics. But just having the backing of the power structure in Mobile alone is not enough to be successful.
Longtime Alabama political columnist Steve Flowers writes about what he calls the “friends and neighbors” tradition of Alabama. According to Flowers, localism prevails when voters go to the ballot boxes on Election Day. We saw some of that in this last special election cycle during the crowded Republican primary with the success State Sen. Trip Pittman had in Baldwin County, and Rep. Mo Brooks had in Madison and Limestone counties.
Beyond Pittman and Brooks’ home counties, neither gained a lot of traction. What did we see instead? Doug Jones and Luther Strange coming out of the more populous Birmingham metro area, and Roy Moore, who was able to build his base from rural turnout.
In Moore’s case, rallying a rural base might work in a low-turnout event in Alabama. But if the entire country is watching because of sexual misconduct allegations and voter turnout (as a result) increases ever so slightly, a strategy that relies on rural participation, in places like the Wiregrass, comes with a ceiling. There just are not enough votes to turn out in Dothan, Enterprise and Daleville to match a modicum of excitement in Birmingham, Mobile and Huntsville.
Now that we have established that all politics is local, particularly in Alabama, how might a candidate from the Mobile area go about winning statewide in the future?
With Jones up for re-election in 2020, there are many Republicans eyeballing a run for U.S. Senate, including Rep. Bradley Byrne.
Byrne has the benefit of having already run a “get-acquainted race” (another Flowers-ism) in 2010 for governor. A big part of politics is name identification, and in a crowded Republican primary Byrne would likely muster enough votes, regardless the circumstances, to make a runoff contest.
Byrne becomes a formidable candidate in any statewide race, not just for that reason but because he can point to his 2010 defeat in the GOP gubernatorial primary to Robert Bentley and say, “I told you so.”
Another potential candidate seeking higher office in a statewide race is the aforementioned Trip Pittman. Pittman ran his “get-acquainted race” during this last cycle. He performed relatively well given he was an unknown beyond the 251 area code and had limited finances.
Pittman ran commercials in the Montgomery, Birmingham and Huntsville markets and had a few shining moments in the candidate forums during the GOP U.S. Senate special election primary. That earned him a fourth-place finish behind Roy Moore, Luther Strange and Mo Brooks, and created some buzz beyond his home turf about his political future.
For now, a candidate from our neck of the woods could win statewide. Before even hitting the campaign trail, Mobile and Baldwin counties have to be already nailed down for a candidate to expand his map and gain ground against whatever juggernaut emerges from the Birmingham area’s Jefferson or Shelby counties.
The path to political stardom isn’t entirely out of reach for our hometown guys. It’s probably more easily obtainable than a candidate running out of Madison County. That could be a problem for Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, who has his eyes set on the governor’s mansion. Just ask Mo Brooks.
However, no longer is it enough to run up a big tally at home. Now that Birmingham has evolved to ideologically coalesce around candidates, as it did with Doug Jones and Luther Strange, beating a Birmingham candidate will take more than it has in the past.