For most of our history, Alabamians have preferred one-party rule in our politics. From the late 1800s until the early part of this century, Democrats were dominant. In many cases, the general election was a mere formality. The winning candidate was typically selected during the Democratic primary.
Those roles started reversing in the 1950s and 1960s. First, Alabama voters grew more comfortable with Republican presidential candidates, a far-off person they would likely never meet face to face.
Local Democrats whom voters could hear and see up close hung around longer, but by 2010 state Republicans controlled the courts, the Legislature and the governor’s office with overwhelming majorities.
It seems the challenge — for Democrats when they were a super-majority and for Republicans now — is avoiding complacency, the assumption that all it takes to win an election and pass a law is to just show up.
Democrat Doug Jones’ surprising victory Tuesday in a special U.S. Senate election demonstrates just how damaging that can be for the dominant party. The “D” alongside Jones’ name would ordinarily have stood for “disqualifier.” Consider that no Democrat even bothered running for that same Senate seat in 2014 when incumbent Republican Jeff Sessions was seeking another term.
It’s likely Republicans, both in Alabama and nationally, are wondering what went wrong. How did a Senate seat representing Alabama go to a Democrat? A timeline of misjudgments and weak assumptions stretches back to when President Donald Trump nominated Sessions as his attorney general. Gov. Robert Bentley, whose relationship with a married staffer was under investigation, named as interim senator Luther Strange, the state attorney general whose office was investigating the governor. That didn’t work out so well for Strange, who lost the trust of voters over what looked like a sweetheart deal of an appointment, and eventually he lost in the Republican primary to Roy Moore.
Moore’s political liabilities, which have been covered relentlessly over the past four weeks, then allowed Jones to build a coalition of Alabamians who just couldn’t stomach the thought of the controversial ex-judge as their senator.
Still, most state Republican leaders continued to support Moore with an attitude summed up by the expression, “Don’t worry if the mule is blind, just load the wagon.” Or, as Gov. Kay Ivey put it, “We need to have a Republican in the United States Senate to vote on the things like Supreme Court justices.”
That mindset blew up in the faces of Alabama’s Republican leadership around 9:30 p.m. Tuesday when news organizations started declaring Jones the winner.
For Ivey and her GOP colleagues in the Statehouse, the rehabilitation process begins next month when the 2018 session of the Legislature gathers.
Big issues should be on the table.
The state ignores its overcrowded prisons crisis at our peril. It’s virtually certain a takeover by the federal courts will be more expensive than a solution passed and signed into law in Montgomery. Ivey’s immediate predecessor Bentley proposed prison fixes, but he and his team never could quite show their math for paying back the $800 million.
Roads, both new ones and others in need of repairs, are another subject Montgomery has toyed with in recent years. Proponents of this infrastructure upgrade have suggested raising the gas tax in order to pay for it.
Obviously, the state’s public schools, which are ranked among the five worst in the country, could always use more money and more leadership.
Coming up with the state’s share of Medicaid is another annual problem. Bentley led an effort in 2012 to drain a state rainy day fund of $437 million to help pay for things like Medicaid and prisons.
So how does a dominant political party in Alabama avoid the trap of complacency in the era of Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala.? A good start might be solving problems involving prisons, roads, schools and Medicaid.