Friday, July 2, 2010

Handicapping the Republican Gubernatorial Runoff

You know what's fun? Watching Republicans form a circular, inward-facing firing squad, and hearing someone order, "Fire!" Why, they're almost acting like Democrats! Almost nothing could better describe the ongoing gubernatorial runoff struggle between Republicans Bradley Byrne and Robert Bentley. The only safe prediction that can be made about this runoff is that it's going to leave scars on the winner that will last well into the fall campaign against Ron Sparks. Before venturing into the general election campaign, let's take a look at what happened in the primary, and what we can expect to happen in the runoff.

Developing a four-color map to illustrate the primary results was interesting, especially as I wanted to avoid using either red or blue, lest some connotation be inferred that the candidate thus signified was the most - or least - Republican of the lot. What I came up with can be seen to the right. While the geographical and political spread of the four contenders' strong points looks haphazard, a little deconstruction will go a long way toward detecting some causes and effects of these results.

One recurring shorthand of Alabama political journalists is to refer to the "I-65 Corridor" as shorthand for the state's four major population centers: Madison, Jefferson-Shelby, Montgomery, and Mobile-Baldwin Counties. At first blush, this looks to be a key to Byrne's first place finish, as he took all four. But if there's a "Corridor" accounting for Byrne's finish, it's the I-85 Corridor. In addition to Montgomery, Byrne did well the rest of the way up that Interstate, including Lee County. In this, we see the ill-hidden hand of GOP state chair Mike Hubbard and the Republican establishment. (For those who missed coverage of the GOP Reagan dinner last weekend, Byrne was all but explicitly endorsed by both Bob Riley and keynote speaker Dick Morris.) This cluster of counties is their geographical and political base. And that leads us to a truer understanding of Byrne's strength than thinking in terms of "metropolitan" vs. "rural" counties. A look at the Byrne counties on this map shows that most have one thing in common: an early history of strong Republican voting. By this, I mean "early" to denote places where Republicans were being elected before the 1986 Hunt-Baxley contest fractured longstanding Democratic loyalties. In places like Baldwin and Shelby Counties, if you like, the Republican Party is more mature, and has what it sees internally as an establishment. And Republicans are congenitally incapable of seeing an establishment without following its lead. Nearly every county in which Byrne led has this history in common. I strongly suspect that if you took a deeper look into the remaining counties, the anecdotal wisdom that the GOP establishment was the base of Byrne's support there would be borne out, too.

If Byrne took the I-85 Corridor, Bentley seems to have triumphed on the I-59/20 Corridor. (With the exception of Jefferson, which is strictly limited to membership in one corridor only.) With Bentley, to the extent there is a geographical explanation, I suspect it is the old "Friends and Neighbors" phenomenon. Obviously, this explains Bentley's strong showing in Tuscaloosa and neighboring counties. It may also help explain Bentley's showing in those counties in the state's northeastern quadrant, along the I-59 and I-20 forks of that "corridor." While Bentley is not exactly their "neighbor," he is closer than Byrne (Baldwin County) or James (Butler). (As Moore becomes less of a factor in each succeeding losing effort, he fares less well in his home region around Etowah County. In fact, in the 2006 primary with Riley, he lost even Etowah.) These northeastern counties have divergent political histories and current political structures, so Friends and Neighbors is as helpful a working hypothesis as any. Or, it may simply be that the absence of any other determinative factor - most of these counties have competitive, but not dominant, local Republican parties - may have left fertile ground for Bentley's "positive" message. One county that would have been an historical natural for Byrne, to the extent it has long been Republican, is Houston County. However, Bentley's leading position in Houston County is readily explained by Byrne's close association with Riley, and Riley's ongoing war on the Dothan economy by raiding, and closing, the huge Country Crossing bingo/entertainment complex, which reportedly employed over 2,000.

Poor Tim James doesn't get a corridor. In fact, most of the counties he carried don't even have an Interstate. Which may not be a coincidence. One factor the James counties have in common is that they are outside the major urban centers. A more subtle factor is that most of them, whether in the Black Belt or Tennessee Valley, are considered Democratic strongholds in a general election, and this may be more important than simple geography. If voting Republican in Colbert County is an exercise in futility, in Greene County it is an exercise in despair. To be a Republican in these counties is to spend every waking moment feeling as a black man felt the day after the 1901 Constitution went into effect: powerless, at least at the local level. It can't be a coincidence that James's message - essentially one of protest about such "outrages" as multilingual drivers' license exams - found its strongest resonance among voters who find themselves excluded from the local establishment.

So where are all of these diverse voters going to land on July 13? Well, if history is any guide, they will land at home. Republican runoff turnout in the post-1986 age has never been enthusiastic, and there seems to be a limited number of local races to draw voters out. The last time there was a Republican gubernatorial runoff, in 1998, only 15.4% of registered voters showed up to participate (as opposed to the 19.0% who did in this year's June 1 primary). To the extent turnout falls, this would seem to benefit Byrne, as party apparatchiks, his most supportive cohort, are generally the most reliable voters. Another factor that seems to benefit Byrne as the runoff approaches is the relative posture and appeal of the four main primary candidates, and what this tells us about their voters' likely destinations on July 13.

As I noted above, the typical James voter is angry. While angry people do like to turn out to vote, getting those angry voters to break decisively in either direction is going to be problematic. An establishment, status quo candidate like Byrne doesn't appeal to them, and neither does the kindly Marcus Welby figure Bentley tries to project. Roy Moore's remaining voters tend to be one-issue voters, and neither Byrne nor Bentley is ideally postured to pitch himself to those voters as their one-issue guy. (This despite Byrne's frantic efforts to run from his patrician Episcopalian past, as captured by Bill Maher. Even if Maher missed the source of the real attack ad.) The problem is, to overcome Byrne's head start, and likely favorable turnout differential, Bentley needs to get both groups of voters to decisively break his way.

One arithmetical hurdle facing Bentley is his home base of Tuscaloosa County. Bentley got 63.5% of the vote in the Druid City and its environs, the highest county share of any Republican candidate in any county. But there, the good news for Bentley stops. Only 16.2% of Tuscaloosa County's registered voters participated in the GOP primary (compared, say, to the 26.3% who did in more heavily Republican Elmore County). While Tuscaloosa County saved Bentley from an early trip to Buck's Pocket, that does not represent the hometown boost most observers were expecting him to get. The last time Tuscaloosa County had a favorite son this close to the top of the ticket, Ryan deGraffenreid got 61.9% of a 36.1% turnout in the Democratic primary for Lieutenant Governor in 1994. To make matters worse for Bentley, a home-county boost from that size electorate is going to make a much smaller splash in a two-man field than it did in a four-way race. It is critical for Bentley to not only get those voters back out, but to find those who were staying home in Tuscaloosa on primary day. He did not make that task any easier by the awkward firing of his entire senior staff in the aftermath of the primary, including popular Tuscaloosa native and political operative Sally Albright and her husband. This was a page-one story in The Tuscaloosa News the next morning. Bentley has also got to figure out a way to improve his shares in Mobile (14.0%) and Baldwin (18.7%) Counties, or he's going to have a very hung-over Bastille Day. That task might not be as daunting as the low percentages indicate. Byrne is best known in his home turf, and someone who didn't vote for him the first time is unlikely to do so in the runoff. Some finish in the 40%'s is doable for Bentley in the coastal counties.

Having done well in most of the urban counties, Byrne has fewer red-ink items on his to-do list for the runoff. A handful of mid-sized counties where Byrne performed particularly below his statewide average probably merit some face time and local media buy. These include Marshall (17.9%), Cullman (14.8%), and St. Clair (18.9%). I haven't been tracking Byrne's itinerary, but neither have I noticed him in any of these three counties lately. Byrne has put up some negative TV on Bentley, which is probably overdue, as no one bothered to target the good Doctor in the first round.

It's inconceivable that this sort of attack ad won't have some impact on Bentley's numbers. He got into second place without so much as a scratch in the primary, but this round will be different.

As Yogi Berra famously put it, the GOP contest this year gives me a sense of "deja vu all over again." Oddly enough, it reminds me of the win of the father of one of this year's GOP contestants, that of Fob James in the 1978 Democratic primary and runoff. In that race, former Governor Albert Brewer was the presumptive frontrunner and insider candidate. Lt. Gov. Jere Beasley and then-Attorney General Bill Baxley were seen as fighting for the second runoff spot, with State Senator Sid McDonald of Arab a possible spoiler. Fob James was seen as an interesting, dilettante millionaire who was playing at politics. The "3 B's," Brewer, Beasley and Baxley, spent the first round attacking each other, with Brewer the most frequent target. Brewer sat on a pile of cash on hand to administer the coup de grace in a runoff he never made. Brewer's support fell apart under the constant attacks (negative media, though disliked, works), and Fob James, running a smooth, positive ad campaign, finished first in the primary, and won the runoff over Baxley. (Beasley completely vanished into fifth place.)

Former GOP State Senator and sometime wordsmith Steve Flowers, without invoking 1978, has attemtpted to paint Bentley as the Fob James of 2010, and the inevitable nominee. It's tempting to see Bentley as the Fob James of 2010, and Byrne as a Brewer who limped into the runoff. Tim James, I suppose, would be a Bill Baxley who didn't quite make the first cut. Moore probably is the McDonald, heading off into the footnotes. I don't see Moore making the scores of millions of dollars Beasley did in the following years as Alabama's King of Torts. Confused yet? I hope so, because there are really key differences that make 2010 a lot different from 1978. Most importantly, the primary/runoff universes are vastly different today. In 1978, everybody voted in the Democratic primary, because that's where governors were selected. The result of that was a more diverse, whiter, more conservative electorate, of which Fob James was the beneficiary. Today's primary electorate is more polarized and partisan, and smaller, and Bentley will not benefit from voters whose ideology is contrary to that of party insiders, as Fob James did in 1978. (Most Democratic insiders who were not already backing Baxley shifted to him in the 1978 runoff.)

One factor in both the primary and the runoff has been, and will be, the now-overt intervention of the Alabama Education Association against Byrne. AEA is reported to have spent a million dollars so far in negative media against the former Chancellor, and is doubtless ready to spend more to assure he never resides on South Perry Street. Certainly, the pummeling Byrne took in the first round of campaigning created enough doubt in Republican voters' minds to create the opportunity for the rise of both James and Bentley. The question now is whether that intervention has a net positive or negative impact on Byrne. It hurts Byrne, if no other way, by allowing Bentley to continue his "kindly doctor" no-negative campaign pledge. On the other hand, especially since AEA's backing of such shells as the True Republican PAC has now become a matter of open media coverage, the beginnings of a reaction among GOP partisans is beginning to be heard. But since those folks broke heavily for Byrne in the first round, and tend to be reliable turnout anyhow, it's hard to see how the benefit to Byrne is that great. It's equally uncertain how many AEA members will heed Dr. Hubbert's call to jump into the GOP runoff, but in a low-turnout environment, every vote has a disproportionate impact.

At the end of the day, the story line in this runoff is probably Bentley's momentum versus Byrne's structural advantages. Be cautious of any poll you see in the media, as Southern primaries have been identified as one of the worst environments for accurate polling (remember all the "Artur Davis landslide" polls?), and Southern primary polls frequently exceed their declared margin of error. The hard voting data from the primary doesn't give any clear answers, either. But that doesn't mean I can't call a winner in the runoff. Bradley Byrne is saying bad things about Dr. Bentley. Dr. Bentley is saying bad things about Bob Riley. AEA is saying lots of bad things about Byrne. Bentley and Byrne are both spending money, and hard feelings are building in both camps. So who wins the GOP runoff? Ron Sparks.