“Well, Artur Davis certainly has done a lot of things different in this campaign,” said Lawson Veasey, the chairman of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Jacksonville State University.
“He did not seek the support of the old-line guard, the African-American political standard-bearers.” And that, he continued, was about the only strategy that could have worked for Davis in the long run, one that was obviously rife with risk.
Davis, Veasey said, made the calculated risk early in the campaign hoping it would improve his standing with white voters in the general election on Nov. 2.
Indeed, in his race against Sparks, the state’s agricultural commissioner, Davis essentially ignored institutions of the old guard, the New South Coalition and the domain of Joe Reed, the Alabama Democratic Conference.
Davis, a congressional moderate, also drifted to the right in his voting as his campaign intensified, refusing to support President Barack Obama’s historic health care reform bill to the astonishment of many of the constituents in his majority-black district.
“It is a noble strategy he implemented,” said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
Even if Davis had won the election, Black says, it would have been difficult for him to have won in November. It is, he said, “very hard for an African-American to win statewide in Alabama, or the Deep South for that matter.”
But he quickly pointed out that it will be hard for Sparks to win as well.
“It is hard for white Democrats to win in the Deep South. ... Democrats are having a very tough time of it in the South these days.”
No matter who won the Democratic primary, Black said, it was going to be an uphill struggle. That is true, he said, no matter who wins on the Republican side.
Jess Brown, a professor of politics and government at Athens State University, says that if Davis had run a traditional Democratic campaign – playing to the base – that he would have easily won.
“He chose instead,” said Brown, “to try to position himself to pull in more independent votes in the general election.”
This, said Brown, explains why Davis went against the president on health care and against the traditional black leadership in Alabama, including the New South Coalition and the Alabama Democratic Conference (ADC) and its leader, Joe Reed.
Those coalitions were out in force in Athens, said Brown, passing out flyers asking voters to support Sparks.
He explained that many, especially older blacks, would have faced a decision between supporting groups that have helped them in the past and voting for a young Harvard-educated black man for governor.
Indeed, in Anniston, two workers for the Alabama Democratic Conference worked opposite ends of the Anniston City Meeting Center late on Tuesday.
Asked who she supported for governor, Lillie Brown, who is black, said “not Artur Davis.”
As she passed out an ADC flyer, she said, “I didn’t like that he voted no on the health care bill.”
While agreeing that a Democratic victory in the governor’s race in November will be difficult, Athens State’s Professor Brown says he believes Sparks will actually have a better chance than Davis of winning.
Sparks, Brown believes, has the possibility of becoming one of the state’s first populist candidates in a long time and that, in this time of economic struggles, is a winning strategy.
“There is a populist streak in this state that goes way back to Big Jim Folsom and Bibb Graves,” he said. “The people are ready for that candidate who will stand up against the powerful.”
Brown doesn’t think Sparks – who is strongly supported by the Alabama Farmers Federation, an organization not normally associated with populism – has the “fire in his belly” of the populist right now, but he believes he can develop it.
“He might get it yet,” said Brown, “but I can tell you Artur Davis would never have gotten it.”