By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
For decades Democrats in Alabama won elections because they campaigned on a platform that they were different from Teddy Kennedy and most national Democrats. Voters would vote for Ronald Reagan or one of the Bushs in one election and two years later vote for Don Seigelman and reelect their Democratic state Senator and state Representative. Voters who oppose abortion, own a half dozen guns, oppose any property tax increase, go to church every Sunday, and favor small government could still vote for Alabama Democrats because they supported bingo, an education lottery, and generous benefits for Alabama teachers.
Republicans, under the leadership of Bob Riley and Mike Hubbard were able to erode that support by convincing voters that there is no difference between an Alabama Democrat and Nancy Pelosi and the national Democrats.
It was a clever strategy that combined with Democrats being embroiled in corruption scandals resulted in a Republican landslide in 2010 that gave the Republicans every statewide office on the ballot, two additional Congressional seats, and super majorities in both the Alabama House and the Alabama Senate. This was the first time that Republicans had held any majority in either house since the mid 1870s.
Stung by the overwhelming defeat, Democrats responded by changing party Chairmen. Alabama Democrats reached out to their political past by replacing the likable Joe Turnham (best known for losing multiple close Congressional races to Mike Rogers (R-Saks) with George Wallace’s son-in-law, former Alabama State Supreme Court Justice Mark Kennedy. Most political observers thought that the Alabama Democrats would move to the middle, portray the Republican super majority as “too extreme for Alabama” (a reversal of the strategy Mike Hubbard had used against Democrats), rehabilitate their own checkered past, distance themselves from the unpopular presidency of Barack H. Obama and then cobble together a populist coalition of Blacks, disgruntled state employees, pro-gambling voters, the poor, union members, and yellow dog rural voters.
Chairman Kennedy did none of that. Instead he embraced the Obama campaign….even though the Obama campaign scratched off Alabama as a hopelessly red state and spent none of their billions in resources here. Worse Kennedy’s efforts were totally ineffective. Obama won just 38% of the Alabama popular vote and ominously only 15% of Alabama’s White voters. Since it is not mathematically possible to do better than Obama’s 95% showing among Alabama’s Black voters and since they are concentrated in majority minority districts, the Alabama Democratic Party faces a mammoth challenge trying to get tens of thousands of Romney voting White voters to support their state legislature candidates in 2014.
Instead of adopting a rural voter strategy Kennedy appealed to the progressive left, a minority of Alabama voters concentrated in the urban centers of Jefferson, Montgomery, Mobile, and Madison Counties as well as college towns. Opening a new office in the City of Birmingham was part of this effort. Kennedy’s strategy runs opposite of the Republican strategy, under ALGOP Chairman Bill Armistead of targeting rural Democrats in counties that voted for Romney and McCain, especially for the offices of Sheriff and Probate Judge (the two most powerful county offices).
Chairman Armistead said in a written statement, “Last year over 50 Democrat elected officials repudiated the Democrat Party and joined the Republican Party, and the trend continues this year. We have our welcome mat out for anyone who shares our values.”
In the election of 2008, Democrats won 3 of Alabama’s seven congressional seats. In 2010, Republicans won six of seven congressional seats but two of those six were extremely competitive. In 2012, none of the Democrats that Kennedy recruited to run against Republican incumbents were even viable. Freshmen Martha Roby and Mo Brooks cruised to easy re-elections against token opponents. Only the majority minority seventh District held by Congresswoman Terri Sewell remains in Democratic hands and Kennedy has to this point not presented a coherent plan for taking back any of the other six seats.
The Democratic cause seemed so hopeless in 2012 that Kennedy was not able to recruit any attorneys to be candidates to challenge Republicans for any of the statewide judicial offices. The only lawyer that even qualified to run with a D behind his name was Pelham attorney and perennial candidate, Harry Lyon, who ran for Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. When Lyon’s homophobia, personal hatred for Kennedy and over the top rhetoric got too much to bear, Kennedy organized a party coup to remove Lyon from the ballot and replace him with Jefferson County Circuit Judge Robert Vance. The Republican candidate for Chief Justice, Roy Moore, easily defeated Judge Vance’s well funded campaign. Likewise the Democrat’s last remaining state wide office holder, PSC President Lucy Baxley was unseated by her Republican challenger, Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh.
Qualifying for the 2014 election ends in less than a year and the Alabama Democrats still do not have a candidate who has announced a run against popular Republican incumbent Governor Robert Bentley (R) or Senator Jeff Sessions (R). It seems like a lifetime ago when Democratic challenger Don Seigelman crushed Republican incumbent Governor Fob James to take the Alabama’s Governor Mansion for the Democrats. Luring former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb (D) out of retirement for a gubernatorial run seems like the Democrats only option of even making the 2014 governor’s race mildly interesting at this point. Kennedy hasn’t inspired confidence, rarely writes press releases, gives few interviews, and has done a horrible job at fundraising. Corporate dollars are moving to the Republican super majority’s camp to protect and advance their interests.
Powerful Alabama Democrats are understandably panicked and confused about their party’s direction. It appears to most observers that Republicans are going to target the remaining White Democrats in the state legislature and Kennedy has presented little evidence that he has any strategy to defend those incumbents or to target Republican incumbents in the legislature.
Kennedy’s recent appearance at a Planned Parenthood rally at the capitol demonstrated how far to the left that Kennedy has moved the Alabama Democratic Party and was viewed as a slap in the face of the remaining Pro-Life Democrats in Alabama.
Last week longtime AEA boss and Alabama Democratic Conference (ADC) Chairman Joe Reed finally admitted publicly what a lot of people were saying privately and pushed the panic button on Kennedy’s tenure as Alabama Democratic Party Chairman. Instead of addressing Democrats concerns and presenting the Democratic Executive Committee with any sort of a coherent path toward victory, Mark Kennedy is resigning as Chairman and is forming his own foundation, the Alabama Democratic Foundation to compete with Reed’s (ADC) for control of the Democratic Party.
Chairman Kennedy told supporters on Facebook, “DO NOT DESPAIR. I am far from finished and now, there is another pathway, filled with hope, integrity and partnership that you can walk with me as we march to victories in 2014. I want you to join Peggy and me in downtown Birmingham at the Harbert Center at noon on this coming Monday (the 22nd) as we announce the creation of the ALABAMA DEMOCRATIC MAJORITY. (ADM) The ADM is a non-profit foundation that will exist to expand field programs, open up field offices, educate voters on issues important to the future, register voters and promote better government. I will serve as its Chair and be happy to volunteer my time and what talents I have. On Monday, I will introduce you to our new staff (you may already know them) and REOPEN the Birmingham Field Office.”
So the White progressives in the ADM are going to do battle with the Black progressives in the ADC for control of the Alabama Democratic Party??? Where does that leave conservative Democrats, moderate Democrats, and swing voters? Targeted by Kennedy’s new ADM Foundation in Democratic Party Primaries?
Instead of building a bigger tent for the Alabama Democratic Party, Kennedy’s strategy of targeting moderates and promoting the most progressive candidates is patterned after the Tea Party’s efforts in many Republican primaries to produce ideologically pure candidates who most favor their narrow ideological bent. This strategy has cost the Republicans U.S. Senate seats in both Missouri and Indiana in 2012 and reelected Harry Reid (D) in Nevada in 2010. Similarly, an attempt to run a progressive slate in Alabama in 2014 will have similar results and will lead to the easy re-election of the Republican super-majority.
Joe Reed is left in a no win position by this. If Kennedy is wildly successful and convinces Democratic donors to support his organization rather than the ADC, Reed will lose power, privilege, and influence and the Democrats will field a slate of candidates who don’t share Alabama’s values and are likely to be easily defeated. If Reed squashes this rebellion, his role as the power behind the Alabama Democratic Party is exposed for everyone to see and he is demonized by Republicans and White liberals alike.
The Alabama Democratic Party would be best served if both of these two men would take their personal feud outside and leave the Party to find a new generation of leadership and perhaps some electoral relevance moving forward.