Alabamians head to the polls tomorrow for the midterm elections, but political observers will likely tell you that many of the races were really decided back in June, during the party primaries.
Alabama is one of the reddest states in the country – Republicans currently hold every statewide elected position and have supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature. But what does party affiliation and identity really mean in Alabama – and how does the party structure work? APR’s Alex AuBuchon has more.
The two-party structure in American politics lends itself to a lot of tidy analogies, like, for example, a football game.
I’m outside Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Alabama for the homecoming game between the Crimson Tide and the Missouri Tigers. As tens of thousands of fans waited to head in to cheer on their team, I asked who they’d be supporting—not between the Tide and the Tigers—but the Republicans and Democrats in November.
“I am a Republican, and I will vote straight Republican.”
Pam Fitch of Auburn, Alabama knows how she’s voting. Others, not so much:
“Well, party-wise, I’m a Republican. But political ideology – I think it kind of ranges to both. I think the political parties are shifting.”
That’s Joe Wheeler of Tuscaloosa, and as for Niya Miller of Hoover:
“Party affiliation is not very important to me, but ideology is. What the candidates are saying, or not saying.”
These somewhat squishy answers on political leanings might have something to do with the unusual way political parties work in Alabama.
“Alabama is a no-party-registration state. When you register to vote in most states, you register as either a Republican, a Democrat or an Independent. Alabama is a no-party state. No registration. Which means you can be a Republican today and a Democrat tomorrow.”
That's political commentator Steve Flowers. But more practically, it could just about be called a one-party state.
“There are 29 elected statewide officials in Alabama – now, granted, 12 of them are judicial posts – but all 29 elected statewide officials are Republican.”
Terry Lathan is the head of Alabama’s Republican Party. She explains what exactly her organization does.
“We wear many hats, to tell you the truth. We have a real strong infrastructure. We have a very powerful GOP database with our voters in it, and that gives us a lot of information. We share this information with our candidates, which in turn helps their campaigns. We also push out the content and the messaging of the platform of the Republican Party. So if you mix all that up, we are very, very busy people in this state.”
One would expect the state party on the Democratic side to be similar, and in theory it is. But Chris England, state representative for Alabama’s 70th district in Tuscaloosa County, says that’s not how it really works.
“They do nothing. Absolutely nothing. Most Democratic candidates run despite the party. Whenever you talk to somebody who’s planning on running as a Democrat, and you ask them if they’re interested in running, you tell them upfront that the Democratic party will not help you, they’re incapable of it, there’s no leadership, and you’re pretty much on your own.”
England went on to elaborate on what it is the state party doesn’t do.
“I mean, if you look at it right now, they don’t even maintain a consistent social media presence, they don’t do any fundraising, they don’t really do any candidate recruitment, and you don’t really see anybody complaining about it.”
I repeatedly asked Alabama Democratic Party Chair Nancy Worley and Alabama Democratic Conference member Joe Reed for comment. Both declined to be interviewed.
Steve Flowers says for the vast majority of Alabama’s political history, the power balance was very different.
“We were a totally Democratic state. That doesn’t mean we were Democratic like the rest of the New York Democrats, or the California Democrats. We just, out of tradition, ran as Democrats. Well, when that changed in the ‘60s, and ‘70s, and ‘80s, we made an about-face and became a totally Republican state.”
And the result, says Chris England?
“The party just atrophied, and as the apathy increased, the expectations of leadership decreased, and when you put somebody in office who’s basically just sitting there with no expectations… We don’t pay them and we get what we pay for, essentially.”
Terry Lathan says not getting paid doesn’t bother her too much.
“I’m a 42-year volunteer. I just turned 60, but I’ve been 42 years volunteering in the Republican Party. I’ve never taken a paycheck. I still don’t. I work 40 hours a week for something I love. We don’t do that for money. All our folks are volunteers, because we believe in the cause – the bigger cause.”
Democratic House member Chris England says despite the dysfunction he sees in the state Democratic party, he thinks there’s still an energized base of support in Alabama. He points to last December as an example.
“We were very effective in the Doug Jones election, for example, in communicating through various means, whether it be social media, print media, radio ads and so forth, outside of the Democratic Party structure, to get the word out, to get people to the polls.”
Steve Flowers warns against putting too much stock in Doug Jones’ election win.
“The Jones situation was a complete anomaly. It will probably never happen again in a hundred years.”
But Chris England isn’t so sure.
“You know, obviously that was a very unique circumstance with a very, very flawed Republican candidate. But we created a number of new voters, and if we can capture those numbers again and bring them out and increase them a little bit, I think we can prevail on November 6.”
On the Republican side, Terry Lathan isn’t willing to sleep on her advantage.
“My number one concern always is not that we don’t have the money, not that we don’t have the content or the policy or really great candidates. It’s complacency. That people will say Oh, they’ve got everything. Oh, I don’t need to go vote. They’re going to win. The Republicans are going to win anyway. What difference does it make?”
She comes back to that football analogy, looking at the Crimson Tide:
“Champions get up every day thinking: ‘What can I do better? How can I run faster? What can I do to improve? Gosh, I made a mistake last time. What can I do to fix that?’ And so I like to apply that to the political world, too. I get up every day thinking like that. I don’t get up thinking, ‘Yay, we have it all, I can take today off.’ I think that’s a mistake, and so I plan to keep us at the top of our game.”
Alabama's football team is at the top of its game. The Crimson Tide trounced Missouri at homecoming 39 to 10. And if the pundits and the party analysts are right, you’ll likely see a different team of elephants with similar margins of victory come Tuesday.