That’s the direction the once-powerful Alabama Democratic Party might be headed in, and political science experts say it may be as inevitable as it is unenviable.
On Friday, Nancy Worley, acting chairwoman of the Alabama Democratic Party, told her executive board the party is so broke it can’t afford the rent on its headquarters in Montgomery or to keep the lights on and water flowing.
That the state party has no money isn’t a surprise to local leaders. Nor, apparently, is it much of a concern.
“I’m proud to tell you the Cleburne County Democratic Executive Committee is alive and well,” said Darrell Turner, the chairman for the party in Cleburne County and former treasurer at the state party, who left last month at the same time as former chairman Mark Kennedy. “That’s the straight truth, we’re not only alive, we are thriving.”
Sheila Gilbert, the head of the Calhoun County Democratic Party, said, that like Cleburne County, her organization isn’t dependent on the state party for funding or anything else. Gilbert said, if anything, the Calhoun County Democrats are headed in the opposite direction of their state counterparts.
In ideological terms and where she sees the party’s long-term future, Gilbert said Monday she’s on board with former state chairman Mark Kennedy’s vision for Democrats. Kennedy left his position as chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party last month and formed the nonprofit group Alabama Democratic Majority. Gilbert said Kennedy’s ideas represent a more progressive-leaning side to the political party that she said Democrats need to focus on if they hope to get back more votes in the state.
Gilbert said Worley’s announcement about the financial predicament the state’s Democratic Party is in, and the perceived split in ideologies among the party “looks awful.” She said, however, there aren’t a lot of options left for the party as it tries to reach out to younger, more progressive voters.
“This is a real turning point in the history of the Democratic Party in the state of Alabama,” she said. “When you hit the bottom you have to do something different. You can’t just keep doing the same things over and over without some type of change.”
But in all likelihood, it won’t change the Republican-dominated political landscape in Alabama, said Glen Browder, a political science professor emeritus at Jacksonville State University.
“No, it’s not good to split up a team that’s on the defensive,” Browder said. “No team wants to split up into two right before the big season coming up.”
But if there’s something party leaders trying to change the course they’re on and political experts agree on, it’s that the Democrats might not have a choice if they hope to survive.
“Yes, it’s an unusual strategy, but these are also unusual circumstances,” said David Lanoue, a political science professor at Columbus State University in Georgia. “I don’t think there’s an example like Alabama whose party completely imploded so quickly and so completely.”
Part of the shrinking of the Democratic Party in Alabama is out of the control of state party leaders, Browder said. In the last national election, Browder said, the Democratic Party decided it no longer needed to court Southern, white, middle-class voters in order to win the presidency.
“And it worked,” Browder said. “But that doesn’t really mean good things for the Democratic Party in Alabama. You can’t win a majority of votes by courting upper-class academics, minorities and liberal groups.”
Browder, who represented Alabama’s Third District as a Democrat from 1989 to 1997, said the party has almost been forced to think long-term about a problem, and hope that a huge demographic realignment takes places.
And if and when those white, middle-class voters decide they want to come back to the Democratic Party, it’s going to be hard to convince them if the party doesn’t have one voice, he said.
History might be on the Democratic Party’s side, however, according to William Stewart, a political science professor emeritus at the University of Alabama.
“You look 100 years ago when the Republican Party was a much smaller force, they had several factions as well,” Stewart said. “That’s what seems to happen when you have a very small group, there are different opinions on how to get back to the position of power they were once at.”
Stewart said he doesn’t see this split being a major turn in the party so much as “another bump in the road,” but said changing opinion should be good for the party.
“Joe Reed isn’t going to be around forever, none of us are,” Stewart said about the vice-chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party. “You look at what happened in Jefferson County in the last election, they were able to vote Democrat with more white progressive voters, and I could see that happening in the whole state.”
Just not any time in the near future, he said.
In this instance, Alabama isn’t alone, Lanoue said. Neighboring states like Tennessee and Georgia also have to look long-term at the health of their parties, rather than the short-term as Republicans dominate the political landscape in the South. If the party hopes to survive in these states, he said, it’ll have to look outside the box.
“Obviously, it remains to be seen what this group is going to do,” Lanoue said about Kennedy’s split. “But if they’ve got some innovating thinking, now’s the time to use it.”
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.