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Election 2014 - Democrats Face Steep Challenge in Alabama

Tuesday is Election Day across the nation.  Voters are heading to the polls to decide races that could

control which party controls the Senate next year.  In Alabama, no such battles are taking place.  Here, what’s most notable about the election is how uncompetitive it is.  For over a century, Democrats had a firm grip on this deep-south state.  That all changed in 2010.  A national wave driven by the 2008 election results swept Republicans into office.  Democrats across the country were hurt in that midterm election by low turnout.  And that’s something they’re battling against in this election cycle.  But in Alabama, Democrats have barely competed.  More attention seems paid to the Republican primary elections to determine who will cruise in the general election.

George Hawley: “The Democratic party faces a number of serious challenges right now, none of which will be overcome by November.”

That’s George Hawley, a professor of political science at the University of Alabama.

Hawley: “There’s funding, for example.  There’s not a lot of high dollar donors giving to the Democratic party right now.  They still get a considerable amount from the teachers unions.  But even the trial lawyers are increasingly giving their money to Republicans.”

Take, for example, the Governors race.  Democrat Parker Griffith is taking on incumbent Republican Governor Robert Bentley.  As of early October, Griffith had raised around $650,000.  $600,000 of that money came from one source: The Alabama Education Association.  Griffith also loaned his campaign nearly $400,000.  But that paled in comparison to the some $6 million Robert Bentley had raised by that point.  Hawley says it’s just not a good time to be a Democrat in Alabama and that one reason is obvious.

Hawley: “Part of the flip in 2010 surely had something to do with the tremendous unpopularity of President Obama in the state of Alabama and in other states as well.  Whether or not that’s fair is an open question, of course.  The person you send to the state legislature has nothing to do with the president, and vice versa.  But I certainly think that led to greater levels of polarization in states like Alabama.”

That assessment is something Alabama Republicans agree with.  Bill Armistead is chairman of the Alabama Republican Party.

Bill Armistead: “The Alabama Democratic Party no longer represents the values of most Alabamians.  The party has been drifting left for a long time, and now with the appearance of Barack Obama on the scene, it’s taken a hard left turn.  I think the embracing of Barack Obama in Alabama has certainly hurt the Democrats.”

But despite that, Armistead says the Republican Party learned a lot from President Obama’s campaign, especially his ground game.

Armistead: “I didn’t realize, I guess, to the extent that they were still working, even after his election in 2008.  The campaign still kept running the states.  They had staff in states.  Many states, particularly the battleground states.  So what we’ve realized, nationally, is we’ve got to do the same thing.  So as of today, the Republican National Committee has over 300 staff people in the battleground states right now working, not only to take these Senate seats, but to continue working and to make sure we keep those voters for 2016 and can elect a Republican president.

Democrats are fully aware of the challenges they face.  And House Minority Leader Craig Ford says his caucus is partly to blame for their recent struggles.

Craig Ford: “A lot of candidates took being elected for granted.  They didn’t get out and work their districts.  You know, in the past, if you’re a Democrat and you won the primary, you were elected.  And that’s not the case now.”

Still, Ford is optimistic about the future.  He expects Democrats to make gains in this election in the House.  And he’s already looking ahead to future elections.  One thing Democrats say they can do is to recruit more female candidates.

Ford: “We need to be represented evenly and that’s what we thought would help our caucus, and so we’re actively trying to recruit more female candidates, as we speak now.  Not for this election but for 2016 and 2018.”

Ford says that has to turn around.  He says right now it’s not really a two-party legislature.

Ford: “It’s a dictatorship with a supermajority in the House, the Senate, and the Governorship.  So, you know, it’s been difficult.  And the people of Alabama haven’t been represented well.  Take the Accountability Act, for example.  You know the leaders of their party got together and drafted this bill up, pulled it out of a desk drawer and 30 minutes later it became law.”

Ford says the Republicans haven’t worked with Democrats at all, because they don’t have to.  Armistead says it’s true the parties rarely work together.

Armistead: “We’re so far apart.  There’s no middle ground it seems like in a lot of cases.  We believe in a strong, conservative government.  They believe in a very liberal government with government taking over more and more of our lives.  And there’s just no compromise on some of that.”

Whether the parties will eventually start working together may depend on this election.  If Democrats can get rid of the supermajority in at least one chamber of government, the parties might be forced to make some compromises.  And we’ll know whether that’s the case when the election is over.  For APR news, I’m Jeremy Loeb.

Jeremy Loeb is a reporter and former APR host of Morning Edition. He joined the station in December of 2013 and stayed with us until November 2014.
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