The day after the 2010 election, Alabama woke up to a new political reality. For the first time in over 100 years, Republicans controlled both houses of the legislature, all executive branch offices, and the state judiciary. Even worse, the GOP gained a super-majority in the legislature, meaning that the remaining Democrats were powerless to even slow down legislation and had zero influence on the content of the bills.
This is Part 2 of our series on “the decline and fall of the ADP and AEA” series. If you missed Part 1, it’s here.
There were many contributing national factors to the electoral debacle:
- The scary maybe-Kenyan, closet Muslim, black guy in the White House.
- Republican voters’ newfound outrage over deficit spending – after Bush put two wars on the national credit card.
- General voter apathy & the inability of Democrats to turn out their base voters in non-presidential years.
Throw in Alabama-specific problems, and the 2010 election was the perfect storm. Alabama Democrats handed the Republicans the bat & the GOP knocked us around with it.
- Corruption: Real and perceived corruption in state government – particularly among powerful Democratic legislators.
- Messaging: An effective, coherent (if totally disingenuous) message from the Alabama GOP: the “Handshake with Alabama” at a time when the state Democratic Party candidates were content to hunker down and hope people would vote out of habit, not noticing the “D” after their names.
- Money: Democratic candidates had precious little of it, no help from the state party, and the AEA piggybank was dry because the organization dumped a bundle in the GOP primary.
- Accomplishments: There were few. Alabama Democrats in the legislators were conservators of the status quo, not proponents of progressive legislation. While we had some good committee chairs who blocked bad legislation (like the annual anti-choice bills), party leadership often blocked good reform legislation.
These four state party problems didn’t start in 2010, but did help push the party over the cliff in that election. Let’s look at each one individually.
Yes, since taking power, the GOP supermajority has engaged in much more high-level corruption than Democrats ever dreamed of. A friend & fellow political junkie put it this way:
“The Democrats? Their stuff was the equivalent of knocking over a convenience store. They got a little cash and passed some of the bread around the neighborhood. But the Republicans? They backed the armored truck up to the state treasury and emptied it in broad daylight.”
But the problem is that venial stuff like getting a speeding ticket “fixed” or not being hauled in for reckless driving when you obviously are things that people can easily understand. They know that they don’t get special treatment, so the news that lawmakers got to flash their ids & drive off (at the same speed as before) ticked off everyone who ever paid a speeding ticket.
Higher-level corruption is more corrosive to the state, but the story is harder to uncover and explain to voters.
For instance, ticket fixing is easy to understand. It’s harder to make voters realize that their power bills are higher because the PSC is packed with Republicans who are bought and paid for by Alabama Power.
When indicted Speaker Mike Hubbard told former PSC Commissioner Terry Dunn to “stop taking his job so seriously,” nobody blinked an eye.
And there was silence when the GOP’s solution to the “power rates” issue was to push a bill that would legalize unlimited contributions from utilities to state candidates.
Those stories are hard to tell to an electorate with a short attention span (unless it’s football) and with a mainstream media that’s being systemically gutted by corporate bean counters.
All these GOP shenanigans took place after they became the majority, but the party strategists gleefully used tales of Democratic corruption as a potent issue in 2010. The following stories/events played on an endless loop and were mercilessly recounted on comment threads, party meetings, and mailers.
A lot of it was BS, but there were enough examples of stupid stuff to lend credence to the bigger allegations:
- Didn’t win the game? Change the rules: Democrats rightly criticize Republicans who change the rules in the middle of the game, but they weren’t immune to the temptation. Just ask former Lt. Governor Steve Windom about that. When he astonished Democrats by winning the 1998 race, Democrats stripped Windom (and future Lt. Governors) of much of the power the office held previously. This battle was part of the imfamous “peeing in a jug on the House floor” episode that entertained late-night comics for weeks.
- When the rules don’t apply to individuals: Powerful Democratic State Senator Roger Bedford was found not guilty of extortion in 2003, but that didn’t keep the GOP from talking about it. Bedford called the charges (brought by Republican AG Bill Pryor) “political,” but they fed into public perception. A history of speeding tickets dating back to the mid-1980’s didn’t help – how many average Joes could just walk away after being caught driving 91 mph?
Then there was a state senator with even more power than Bedford – Lowell Barron – who also had “issues” with traffic tickets. So much so that, in 1996, he sponsored legislation to prohibit small-town police departments from patrolling Interstate highways. This was after he was stopped for speeds topping 90 mph – and showed his legislative id to get out of a ticket.
- Heavy-handed election tactics: Elected Secretary of State in 2002, current ADP chair Nancy Worley was indicted on corruption charges in 2007 after an employee in her office complained that she sent campaign materials and solicitations for contributions to SOS employees. It wasn’t the first time Worley was tone-deaf in a letter & it wouldn’t be the last. Coupled with the indictment of Governor Siegelman, the incident helped feed the GOP’s narrative.
Was any of it as bad as what’s happened since 2010? No. But the low-level stuff was a symptom of a leadership that had grown comfortable and a bit out of touch. They weren’t ready for the fight that was coming.
Other than “we’re not Obama!” do you remember a single coordinated message from Alabama Democratic candidates in 2010? How about 2006 or 2002? The last time the party candidates ran on a single big issue, it was in 1998 with the education lottery. Note: we won that election! 1998 was also a year national issues dominated many state races: voters punished Republican candidates for Clinton’s impeachment. On election night, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw called it “a good night to be a Democrat.”
2010 was NOT a good year to be an Alabama Democrat. The party was MIA & AEA was busy playing in the Republican primary.
Left to their own devices, many Democratic candidates hired consultants who convinced them that running as “Republican lite,” anti-Obama was the key to victory. Surprise! Alabama voters aren’t that stupid. You can put an elephant’s trunk on that donkey, but it’s still a donkey. Sending out dreadful mailers that trashed the President didn’t help Democratic candidates, but it did depress Democratic base voters. Let’s look at my own (former) State Rep. Butch Taylor as an example.
- In September 2010, a mailer reassured us that he was a “leader, not a liberal” who would “… keep liberals like Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama in Washington, where they belong.” The back of the mailer was even worse with crazy anti-immigrant rhetoric that could have been lifted from a Mo Brooks speech.
- It got worse in October, when Taylor assured voters that he lived in a “brick house,” not the White House. Like any voter would confuse a Madison County coach with a former Constitutional Law professor and President of the United States?
In 2010, many Alabama Democratic candidates forgot their base, ran from their party, and failed to run on any issues that mattered to Alabama families.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at the last two problems: the failure of fundraising and lack of accomplishments. If you’ve been in power for over 100 years, you should have something to show for the last two decades. Simply “keeping things like they are” doesn’t inspire anyone but the people who benefit from the status quo.
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