Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Counting Heads (and Tails) in Legislative Races

Ever since Guy Hunt moved from Holly Pond to the Governor's Mansion in 1987 and found his sillier ideas hamstrung by a Democratic Legislature, the Business Council of Alabama, ministres plénipotentiaires on Earth of Satan himself, have alternately dreamt of and predicted a Republican takeover of that body. Never, however, as intensely as they have in the runup to the 2010 election cycle. Republican Chairman, and Speaker Wannabe, Mike Hubbard launched his "Campaign 2010," with a stated goal in the millions of dollars, and every special election and Democratic retirement has been touted as the keystone that will harken the Republican takeover of one or both houses.

Reality, however, has its own way of intruding on the most certain plans and prognostications. Multiple factors have arisen to make that takeover look less likely than it has in the last two years. As of this posting, Danny at Doc's Political Parlor has apparently taken down his Line for post-primary revision of the odds, but before doing so, he had both houses of the Legislature remaining Democratic. Let's look at some of the statewide trends at play, and a few particular examples of where they might play out.

Statewide. That giant whooshing sound you heard on the night of June 1 was the sigh of relief breathed by the collective Democratic Legislative leadership when AP called the gubernatorial primary for Ron Sparks. With that victory, the centerpiece of the GOP legislative campaign in 2010 snapped. For four years, Republican leaders had been as confident as Artur Davis that the latter would head the Democratic ticket. For the same four years, Democratic leaders had feared that same possibility as much as their Republican counterparts had hoped for it. After Barack Obama got an embarrassing 10% of the white vote in Alabama in the 2008 general election, that fear was seen to be well-founded. Davis seemed to have listened to his own rhetoric about a post-racial Alabama so long that he believed it himself. Almost everyone else knew he would have lost the general election in a grand and spectacular fashion with a fifth or less of the white vote, and probably taken a raft of Democratic legislators down with him. Compounding the racial issue was Davis's support of charter schools - anathema to AEA. Had Davis been the nominee, and anyone but Byrne the Republican nominee, Democratic candidates downballot would have had the dismal prospect of AEA throwing much of its support to the GOP.

As it is, the Democrats have, in Ron Sparks, as good a candidate as they could have hoped for at the top of the ticket. Besides not polarizing the electorate along racial lines, he is from North Alabama, from which the majority of white Democratic legislators now hail. To the extent that Sparks draws the "friends and neighbors" vote about which I wrote earlier, those upstate legislators will benefit. Other intangibles, too involved for anything other than cursory listing, have also improved the Democratic prospect. Health care reform, while not yet popular, is not the white-hot issue it was before the Congressional votes. If jobs aren't being created rapidly, neither are they disappearing as they were a year ago. And while Republican planners drool at the prospect of complaining about Obama's handling of the Gulf oil disaster, they would do well to consider which party is most easily painted as a tool of Big Oil.

All politics is local. And so are all legislative districts. With that in mind, let's look at a few sudden bright spots on the Democratic horizon.

Senate District 7. In the 2009 special election to fill Parker Griffith's seat, the GOP gave itself all kinds of credit for the election of mediocre barbecue purveyor Paul Sanford. Really? As solid a legislator as Representative Laura Hall is, and as better as she would have been than Sanford, this white-majority district was not going to send an African-American up to the Seventh Floor. Now, former Senator Jeff Enfinger is tanned, rested, and ready to reclaim his old chair in the Senate. While he can't fully self-finance, he can make substantial self-contributions, and reconnect to all the economic conservative/social moderate types that constitute a force in hi-tech Huntsville. Race aside, Representative Hall is solidly progressive, and known to be so. Despite her race, and known progressive credentials, Hall only lost to Sanford by 57-43%. While this district probably has the highest black percentage of any Senate district north of Birmingham, it is still heavily white, so these numbers were an impressive showing by Hall. Further, this was a special election with limited turnout. While high for a special, turnout was only 57.9% of that for the same district in the 2006 general. While black turnout was high for a special election, which helped Hall, turnout was even higher for a special in many white precincts, suggesting a white racial reaction, the net benefit going to Sanford. In terms of the political positions of the two candidates, this year's contest looks more like a replay of the 2006 general election, which the Democrats won, 65.5%-35.5%. The latter numbers are also more consistent with the district's aggregate Democratic voting history. Although House districts are no longer perfectly nested (three House districts completely inside one Senate district), the 7th is near-nested, and two of the three House districts are longtime Democratic seats. Enfinger will not have the "visibly progressive" handicaps Hall suffered, and will be the beneficiary of a north-Alabama-oriented Democratic state ticket. This looks to be a takeback for Democrats, despite media chatter to the contrary.

Senate District 9. For a couple of decades now, Republicans have awaited the death or retirement of Hinton Mitchem of Albertville, and expected this district to fall like an overripe apple into their hands. As Marshall County, the district's heart, trended Republican, the Tim Mitchellsalivation got unseemly. Then, in an inspired bit of recruitment by State Chair Joe Turnham after Mitchem's eleventh-hour retirement announcement, the Democrats found their own spare 800-pound gorilla. 22-year Probate Judge Tim Mitchell is the D nominee. Any student of Alabama politics knows you don't mess with a probate judge, and Mitchell didn't hold the job that long by being a political maladroit. While Mitchell coasted against token primary opposition, the Republicans drained themselves in a four-man primary, and continue to exsanguinate in a runoff. Finally, Mitchell should benefit from the "friends and neighbors" wake of DeKalb neighbor Sparks. Against all early expectations, this should be a Democratic hold.

Senate District 29. On paper, this is one of the most Republican Senate districts in Alabama. (Thus fulfilling the title's promise to count tails.) But in 2010, all bets are off, as the state GOP lashed out at Senator Harri Anne Smith for her support of Bobby Bright in the 2008 Congressional general election, and barred her from their primary ballot. She is running as an independent, and who knows how that will work out? (There is a Democratic nominee, Houston County Democratic Chair Jennifer Adams. And a Republican, George Flowers.) The Republican prospect in this race calls to mind what the late Ohio State Coach Woody Hayes (sorry, Doug Dermody) said about the forward pass: there are only three ways it can turn out, and two of them are bad. If Smith is elected - as is possible - she may have enough residual spite to caucus with the Democrats to organize the Legislature. Stranger things have happened in Montgomery. Add to all this, the adverse employment impact of Bob Riley's Wonderful Bingo War on this Wiregrass district. Republicans will have to divert substantial resources to this base district, and may lose it even then.

House District 24. High in the mountains of Northeast Alabama lives a rare political creature: a Republican legislator who has been a regular supporter of AEA, Representative Todd Greeson. And AEA has reciprocated that support, financially and politically, making a Democratic challenge difficult in this swing district. But now, Dr. Hubbert is looking at a difficult calculus, and old friends like Greeson are no longer affordable if the Democrats are to retain control of the Legislature, and Democratic friends of education are to remain in committee chairmanships. Enter into this picture, former Rainsville mayor Nathaniel Ledbetter, the energetic Democratic nominee. Add to this that Rainsville, where Ledbetter is still popular, is the Republican population base for the district, making Greeson's climb even more uphill. Greeson took this seat in 1998 by campaigning, vocally, against the community college job of the Democratic then-incumbent. Since joining the Legislature, Greeson has taken a job with - Northeast Alabama Community College. Oh yes, did I mention that this is Ron Sparks's home House district? I think we can count on an energized Democratic base and splitting of traditionally straight GOP tickets. Call this one a likely Democratic takeaway. And except for the fact that Sparks is only a next-door neighbor, you can say "all of the above" (including the AEA about-face) about House District 30, where Republican incumbent - and Gadsden State employee - Blaine Galliher faces well-liked Southside Mayor Wally Burns. In what Democrats can only think sweet irony, if Byrne is the GOP nominee, both Greeson and Galliher will have to stand stoically silent while they are hit by shrapnel from all of Byrne's "double-dipping community college legislator" bombs.

House District 63. This is the Tuscaloosa district being vacated by gubernatorial hopeful Robert Bentley. Bentley has been one of those laid-back, AEA-friendly Republicans in the House, too. This has largely suited the voters in his upscale district, whose conservative tendencies are leavened by the presence of a substantial number of University of Alabama faculty. One of whom, law professor Susan Pace Hamill, is the Democratic nominee against Republican attorney Bill Poole. Hamill, who holds a divinity degree she earned while still teaching law, has tapped deeply into the University's College Democratic scene to provide manpower for her campaign. What should be a base Republican district has emerged as a battleground, into which GruppenfĂĽhrer Mike will have to send valuable Republican dollars to hold it - if hold it he can.

House District 73. In this Montgomery district, which includes much of the Cloverdale neighborhood, Democrat Joe Hubbard promises to add to Montgomery's existing Hubbert-Hubbard confusion. He also promises to add to the woes of incumbent David Grimes. Hubbard is a young, articulate attorney who is the great-grandson of Senator Lister Hill. He looks and sounds like the Episcopal vestryman that he is. In other words, he looks like a Republican. (We won't hold that against him.) In any other district, that might not matter, but in this upscale territory, it immunizes him from easy portrayal as a wild-eyed liberal (the one note Mike Hubbard's trumpet plays). If you drive through this district, though yard signs don't vote, Hubbard signs are everywhere. Hubbard at least has some organized, enthusiastic followers, if he knows how to use them. Is Grimes worried? There's reason to think so. Not only did Grimes take the unusual step of joining Hubbard in a State House press conference to mutually pledge clean campaigns (a tactical error for a Republican, since they rely on the lie), he wound up heaping praise on Hubbard, as seen in this video clip.

The clip also betrays anxiety to the extent that you don't pick your nose on camera unless you're nervous about something. The geography of this district makes it a fight for any Democrat. But suddenly, for the reasons mentioned above, Mike Hubbard is going to have to divert precious dollars to this base district from some takeaway opportunity.

Will all of these Democrats win? Of course not; one or two may well lose. My point is that, as recently as two months ago, most of these now-favored Democrats would have been considered underdogs. While the pendulum could swing back toward the GOP, it's just as likely that its Democratic momentum will put even more GOP seats in play, or make battleground seats safely Democratic. An acrimonious Republican runoff for governor, maybe? More revelations about Riley's links to Mississippi Choctaw casinos? Stay tuned, folks. And will someone get Mike Hubbard a Rolaids? The boy don't look like he's feeling well at all.


  1. Hey MIKE Hubbard! Too bad that speaker thing isn't working out. It's not all it's cracked to be anyway. It's hard to sneak off the floor for a nip if you have to sit in the Big Chair all day!

  2. OMFG! He IS picking his nose on camera! What a loser! Hope everyone in Montgomery is watching this.