Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Conventional Stupidity: The 4th Congressional District

The other day, I vented for a few minutes about the “Conventional Wisdom” as it pertains to the Fifth Congressional District. Actually, I vented for a lot longer than that; I just quit typing before I wrote something about the exponents of “Conventional Wisdom” that might get me in legal trouble. Today, I am going to tempt the fates again, and talk about how “Conventional Wisdom” has inflicted long-standing Republican control on a fundamentally Democratic Congressional district. Perhaps there are lessons to be learnt by the DCCC, that can avoid a similar episode of incompetence in the Fifth this year.

As the title gives away, I am talking about the Alabama Fourth District. This district has been held since the 1996 election by Republican Robert Aderholt of Haleyville. Aderholt is noted for being one of the most reliable votes in the GOP Caucus, so much so that he has failed, time and again, to bargain for goodies for his constituents. Indeed, he has frequently voted them out of a job, as with his deciding vote favor of CAFTA in 2005 that spelled the end of literally thousands of hosiery mill jobs in Fort Payne, that were lost to Central American competition. Whatever caused the change in hairlines in the two photos here (the one on the left, from his first campaign; the other current), it wasn’t from excessive activity underneath.

Because Aderholt was allowed to become entrenched in this district, it is widely viewed, especially among the Beltway-genius crowd, as one of the most reliably Republican districts in the country. This reputation is bolstered when, as this year, no Democrat qualifies for the contest. However, the district is Republican in the first place because that same Beltway Conventional Wisdom became a self-fulfilling prophecy in 1996. Before that year, the district had been held for 30 years by Democratic legend Tom Bevill of Walker County. Bevill had reclaimed the seat for the Democrats after its one term in GOP hands after the 1964 Goldwater surge in Alabama. Prior to that one term, the seat had been Democratic since 1901, and even that one-term Republican interval was occasioned by GOP control of the Congress, which seated Republican William Aldrich (as in Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller) under questionable circumstances.

Bevill was a master of the appropriations process, and spent all but the last of his last several terms as chair of the House Public Works Appropriations Subcommittee, the best seat in Congress for bringing bacon back home to the district. Aderholt, by contrast, strikes most observers as an acquiescent bobble-head who can’t find sufficient words to reassure the Republican leadership, and a Republican president when he has one, that he is their most reliable team player. Bevill was a genius at leveraging either issue concessions, or benefits for his district, by hinting that he was getting a lot of heat from his constituents about a bill, and might have to vote against it. (All without sacrificing core Democratic values.) Not so Aderholt. A district accustomed to considerable largess under Bevill has become one of the doormats of Federal appropriations as a result. Bevill’s mastery of the process is exemplified by a speech I recall at his district retirement dinner in his hometown in 1996. One of the speakers was a Corps of Engineers representative, who said she stopped a local policeman to ask for directions to “The Bevill Center,” the venue for the dinner. The cop scratched his head and asked her, “Which one?”

One reason this district is said to be permanently Republican is its voting history since Aderholt was elected in 1996. Now, for the strength to resist calling expositors of Conventional Wisdom what they really, truly are. The district is “Republican” because Aderholt has averaged 67.7% in his seven elections to the seat. Yet, when Aderholt first sought the seat, Bevill had averaged 91.7% in his last seven elections. This graph shows the relative strengths of the two in their last seven elections:

The point of my gripe - no, my fury - is that, in 1996, Democratic nominee, former State Senator Bob Wilson of Walker County, was denied funds from the DCCC (a nominal media buy that had been promised was pulled in favor of “more competitive” districts) on the basis that the district was “too Republican” for the DCCC to “waste” scarce resources - despite the fact its then-recent voting history was more Democratic than the now-Republican history used to write it off. This was being done while the national Republican Party, through PACs, party committees, and guided contributions, was channeling hundreds of thousands of dollars that cycle to Aderholt to take the seat. It is bad enough when such nonsense is propagated by Beltway punditry, but when it originates in the campaign offices of the Democratic Party, one wonders if a treason investigation isn’t merited. After Wilson, two strong Democratic candidates contested the seat before Aderholt could plant deep roots - Don Bevill, the former Congressman’s son, in 1998, and Marsha Folsom, the wife of Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom (then the former Governor) in 2000. Both had entered the race with promises of national party support, which, in both cases, was not forthcoming. Conventional Wisdom, you see, again said the seat was “too Republican.”

And I can hear the New Jersey-American accents pointing out to me, that “tings have changed,” that voters in the Fourth will “no longer vote for a Democrat in the age of Kerry and Obama.” Obama, personally, I concede, is a problem. The racial voting polarization was extreme in this district which, with only a 5.1% black vote, is Alabama’s whitest. Obama got 23.7% in DeKalb County, 21.3% in Marshall, and only 16.7% in Cullman. Overall, McCain got 76.2% of the district’s vote. (But since Bush only got 60.2% in 2000, it may be safe to assume the size of that margin is attributable to racial, not political, factors.) Neither have other Democratic Presidential candidates fared well in the district. However, one appears to be disqualified from status as a DC pundit if one knows that, especially in the South, GOP Presidential voting patterns are not always followed downballot. This is empirically established by the following table, which aggregates the 2006 party votes for those districts in the Alabama House of Representatives which are fully nested within the Fourth District:

PartySeats HeldTotal Vote% Vote

Without taking time to likewise tally courthouse offices, anyone with enough familiarity with the district to have an opinion worthy of audience, knows that the county offices in this District are overwhelmingly Democratic. In fact, Democrats control the majority, if not all, of the courthouse offices except in historically Republican Winston County (a county whose Republicanism dates to Abe Lincoln; it attempted to secede from the state during the Civil War). Even in Marshall County, where Republican trends have been strongest in the district, Democrats still control the sheriff’s office and the probate court, two traditional local power centers. So, I don’t care if your name is “Cook,” or “Rothenberg,” or “Kowalski.” If you try to tell me that this district will not vote for any Democrat downballot because it votes Republican in Presidential elections, I am not paying the $200-$300+ a year you charge for your insider “knowledge.” I can put the cash to better use.

Wow, that felt better. And I managed to say what I wanted without using any of what Dennis the Menace called his dad’s “golf words.” Which leaves me in enough of a charitable and relaxed mood to observe that the performance of the DCCC in Southern districts has notably improved, as shown by their heavy presence in the Alabama Fifth in 2008. (I sense the gentle nudge of the boot of Howard Dean, implementing his successful 50-State Strategy over the objection of Conventional Wisdom insiders, who remain convinced we can elect a President and Congress with only New York and New Jersey.) So long as the Party maintains this 50-State Strategy, this district will be less of a challenge, even in Presidential years. When it was lost in 1996, the Clinton-Gore media buy in Alabama was exactly zero; Clinton lost the state by 6.9%. Had that margin been trimmed by a couple of points by some negative on Dole, this district would probably have still been Democratic today. Perhaps, when this district comes open, there will be some enlightened staffer who will realize the pickup opportunity this district represents.

And that day may not be far off. Rumors keep bubbling around the district - though never covered by the media - that Aderholt is looking for a parachute, preferably golden. Of course, there were more parachutes when there was a Republican in the White House, but the tales persist. (One wonders if the Obama political shop is sufficiently astute to see the possibility of something like the appointment of John McHugh, the Republican from the New York 23rd, as Secretary of the Army. Probably not. That appointment caused a special that elected that district’s first Democrat in 150 years.) It may be that Aderholt is waiting to see if the GOP can take the House back this time. A review of Aderholt’s May 12 FEC report shows that, through that date in this cycle, he has not made a single contribution to a candidate of his own party, and isn’t engaging in the sort of fundraising that intraparty support requires. That is not the behavior of a Congressman who wants to hang around, and thereby must grease the rails of his career advancement on the Hill. (And even I refuse to attribute that course entirely to his naïveté.) A smart local politician, or clever DCCC staffer, will keep one peeled eye on this district at all times.

In the meantime - and I almost dare not ask it - is this district winnable before Aderholt tires of life on the Potomac? The local voting fundamentals say yes, but realism dictates skepticism. Had the DCCC of 1998-2000 been on the ball, it was easily doable. Today, Aderholt has spoken, as the incumbent, at a lot of Rotary lunches and high school graduations. Many Congressional “statements” advocating heterosexuality, private ownership of automatic weapons, and the birth of unwanted babies, have been duly “reported” in local newspapers. A lot of voters over the age of 60 in 1996, who would remember what an effective Congressman can do, are no longer among the living. Still. It’s a little more than “a fella can hope, can’t he?” A close look at the voting trends above show that Aderholt has not performed particularly brilliantly against token, if noble, opposition. A review of returns in his, and other, races, indicates that the district has about a 25% straight-Democratic-ticket voting cohort; not bad for a 91% white Southern district. The overall trend of Aderholt’s vote share is downward (though it will rise with no opponent this cycle). A review of his expenditures this cycle reflects a lack of spending discipline, and a lot of funds expended for items of questionable political benefit. (e.g., repeated “staff lunches” at Ruth’s Chris Steak House; Ribeye, $37.00. Baked potato? $8.00 extra.) His cash on hand on May 12 was only $345,409.00, which, even by House standards, isn’t going to get him in the Richard Shelby Impervious Wall of Cash Club. Perhaps most importantly, he has issue vulnerabilities (see, 4,000 unemployed Fort Payne sock mill workers, supra), that could be exploited by an opponent.

Of course, a successful challenge presumes a successful challenger. I have some names in mind, but various more pressing political issues preclude me from dropping them. You know who you are, and when and if the opportunity presents itself, I will gleefully extol your viability to the world. In the meantime, a few thoughts about such a candidate. He or she will need some pre-existing name recognition, whether from politics, business, or elsewhere, simply to overcome Aderholt’s structural advantages as an incumbent. This race is going to require a lot of money to win. At a minimum, it requires media buys in the Huntsville and Birmingham television markets, and generally, Columbus, Mississippi. The candidate will need either the ability to self-finance, or an ironclad commitment from the DCCC, to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars. (A third possibility is some “Fairy Godmother” donor base, such as the Brown schoolmates who did so much to boost Josh Segall’s campaign in 2008, or Terri Sewell’s tap of her Princeton and Harvard Law buddies.) The balance could be raised once some negative goes up on Aderholt, and challenger viability is established. On issues, the candidate will need to be able to articulate the damage done to the pocketbooks of the district’s rural and small-city blue collar workers by Aderholt’s Republican non-ideas, with relentless discipline and ruthlessness. The task is not impossible, only arduous. But then, we are meant to earn our bread by the sweat of our brows. Unless, of course, we are Republicans.


  1. You can add Dr. Susan Parker to the list of Alabama Democratic candidates who were promised DCCC cash before they were denied DCCC cash. I'm beginning to believe democrats either don't want to win or the party has been infiltrated to such a degree democrats will never win.

  2. Technically, Dr. Parker's problem was with the DSCC, the Senate committee. But it was on a stupid kick in 1996, too. It shoveled $20 MILLION to Toricelli in New Jersey ("You suddeners don' unnastan. Noo Joisey is a 'key' state."), while FIVE Democrats in cheaper-campaign states lost by 5% or less, including Roger Bedford in Alabama. Split that $20 million five ways, win those five seats and let the GOP have the NJ seat, and the Democrats would have retaken the Senate that year. Like I said, Dean's 50-State idea has gotten money spread out more wisely. Kay Hagan got enough DSCC cash to beat Liz Dole, for example.

  3. DSCC/DCCC what's the difference? Both are stuck on stoopid.

  4. If you want a change then lets support Rick Neighbors for this seat. He a common sense average everyday working man that can make a difference for our district. I am tired of voting for the same old politicians. I want change and I want it now.

  5. @Greg: Thanks for the comment. I do not get many comments on 18-month-old posts. I hope to be speaking soon about the 4th in 2012.