Failed GOP chairman candidate Matt Fridy wants a Reaganesque party where the 11th Commandment — not to speak ill of fellow Republicans — is in force.
Meanwhile, Bill Armistead, beginning his second term as Republican Party chairman, wants a GOP with more people of color.
The highly contentious election of a chairman for the Alabama Republican Party brought out some of the divisions in GOP, once known for its ability to keep its supporters on message. It also highlighted Republicans’ struggle with their relatively new status as the state’s controlling party.
“It’s a big-tent party,” said Jacksonville State University political science professor Lori Owens, using a metaphor once applied only to Democrats. “It’s going to be different from the days where they were in the minority.”
Republicans saw a relatively contentious fight to elect a party leader last month. Armistead, Gov. Robert Bentley’s favorite in the last party election, faced off against Fridy, a former Shelby County party chairman. Bentley backed Fridy in the February election, switching from his support for Armistead. Fridy also got the backing of party leaders such as House Speaker Mike Hubbard of Auburn.
Armistead got the support of Chief Justice Roy Moore, a favorite of the party’s social-conservative wing. Armistead’s victory has some claiming the fight was a win for grassroots, tea party conservatives over the party establishment
Campomenosi, head of the tea party group Common Sense Campaign, says his group played a crucial role in the election by mobilizing activists to get out the vote for Armistead.
Campomenosi claims Fridy was hand-picked by Hubbard, the House speaker who once chaired the party himself. Campomenosi said Hubbard exerts too much influence within the party.
“He’s becoming a new Boss Tweed,” he said, alluding to the 19th century Democratic leader who ruled over New York City politics.
“I’m skeptical of anyone, whether it’s him or anyone else, having the reins of power in that way,” he said.
Attempts to reach Hubbard for comment last week were unsuccessful.
Fridy said he’d heard those accusations, too, and was disturbed by them.
“I’m my own man,” Fridy said last week.
Fridy said the core of his campaign as chairman was an effort to unify the party, in a Reagan-like way. He said he was disturbed by opponents who depicted him as an opponent of the tea party, whose values, he said, most Republicans share.
Armistead, now a month into his new term as chair, said he’s no longer interested in talking about any conflict that occurred before the elections.
“I’m not interested in talking about what happened prior to Feb. 2,” he said. “I’m interested in winning elections in 2014.”
He said his biggest project at present is recruiting black and Hispanic conservatives into the party.
That’s one area the “big tent” doesn’t quite cover. The party holds a supermajority in both houses of the Legislature, and all the statewide constitutional offices. But all those office-holders are white.
Owens, the political science professor, said the conflict wasn’t as simple as the tea party versus the establishment.
“You can’t just say ‘the tea party’ anymore,” she said. “You have to say, ‘which tea party?’”
Owen said many political observers see two factions within the party — a group loyal to former Gov. Bob Riley and another loyal to Gov. Robert Bentley. But the reality is more complex than that, she said.
“There are Second Amendment conservatives, social conservatives, business conservatives, lots of different ideas about what the plan should be,” she said. While divisions emerge during situations like the GOP chair election, it’s still difficult to draw clear lines between factions.
If the narrative of intra-party conflict sounds familiar, it may be because it’s the way Democrats often operated during their 136 years in control of the Senate. With one party holding most of the state’s offices for more than a century, Democratic primaries were the hottest political battlegrounds, while Republicans typically united behind a candidate who, more often than not, went down to defeat.
The shoe, at least for now, seems to be on the other foot.
Sam Fisher, a political science professor at the University of South Alabama, said the Republicans are dealing with the problems of a party in power, which is still a relatively new experience for them.
“You’re likely to end up with more conflicts between people who want to be pragmatic and people who want ideological purity,” he said.
Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.