Election may be decided on personality

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 9, 2005

Just like the proverbial argument of which came first the chicken or the egg, there is a perennial political argument that begs the question which is more important, party or personality? My theory is that in Alabama politics it depends on the year.

In Presidential years, like last year’s 2004 election, party was the dominant decider. With the national Republicans fielding a social conservative like George W. Bush and the Democrats having a northeastern liberal elitist at the top of their ticket anybody running as a Democrat was wiped out down the ballot. It was a tidal wave of straight Republican voting that was hard to swim upstream against. This is generally the case in Alabama in Presidential years. Therefore, party is more important in these years.

In gubernatorial years, however, the personality of the candidate dominates. You can watch the polling data change incrementally between the two years. In last years Presidential race the party allegiance given by Alabama was a 10 point spread in favor of the GOP. However, polling today will have dropped to a 5 point Republican edge in party alliance and by this time next year it will have evened out to a breakeven with 35% Republican, 35% Democrat, and 30% Independent.

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Many mainstream Alabamians definitely vote in favor of a more conservative Presidential candidate. However, the Republican hallmark campaign strategy of calling all Democrats wild eyed liberals falls on deaf ears and sounds shallow and fabricated when the Alabama Democratic candidates pretty much mimic the Republicans on inflammatory social issues like same sex marriage and abortion. Plus it is hard to picture their local sheriff, probate judge, and state representative as some liberal. Old Joe, the local Democratic sheriff went to grade school with them, the local Democratic probate judge married them, and their local state representative sits next to them in church.

In most of Alabama’s rural counties the Democrats will get more votes than the Republicans. Democrats still hold clear majorities in the Alabama Legislature. In the House they have a 61 to 44 edge and they enjoy a 25 to 10 majority in the Senate. Democrats also control 72% of the state’s county commissions and 53 of the 67 sheriff’s offices and all of these races will be on the ballot next year.

However, this local stronghold has been replaced in most of the metropolitan areas. Therefore, the GOP actually holds a majority of county commissioners and sheriffs in a majority of the state’s population. Also the Republicans currently hold a majority of the state’s constitutional offices.

The enormous growth of the Republican Party in Alabama in the last 40 years has been from the top down. The Democrats have blocked the surge of Republicanism in gubernatorial years. Thus my theory that gubernatorial years, like next year, are based more on personality than party.

Speaking of personalities, we have certainly had them. The South has been known for its colorful political characters and here in Alabama we have certainly held our own with Big Jim Folsom and George Wallace. We have always gone for characters over credentials. The two most interesting and colorful characters in next year’s Governor’s Race are probably Democrat Lucy Baxley and Republican Roy Moore and they may very well be their respective party’s standard bearers.

Moore has been castigated as a demagogue and accused of “using” the Ten Commandments issue for political gain. There is no question but that the Commandments issue is his calling card and his only issue. However, I would argue that in his heart and mind he is doing what he is led to do. This is not a new position for him. Several people who were in law school with Moore say he was a zealot and loner then and he has always been. I would also argue that a true southern demagogue, like Huey Long or George Wallace, would never have given up their job or income or retirement for a stand like Moore has done. Moore is not a rich man and he forfeited all of his income and retirement for his beliefs. He truly stood for what he believed was right. If he were to be elected he would have very little experience or credentials for being a good Governor, but I doubt very seriously you would have much corruption, at least on his part.

I believe the 2006 Governor’s Race will be decided by personality rather than party.

See you next week.

Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 60 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.