When Democrat Doug Jones defeated conservative icon Roy Moore in a U.S. Senate election in Alabama last year, many took the win as a sign of a coming “blue wave” in the 2018 midterms.
But there’s growing evidence that the wave, if it does rise up, may not reach Alabama’s State House or most of its county seats – because few Democrats are seeking offices there.
With less than a week left until the end of the qualifying period, Democrats are seeking 11 of Alabama’s 35 state Senate seats and 39 of the 105 seats in the House, guaranteeing Republicans a continued majority in both houses if no more candidates qualify to run. Party leaders aren’t sure many more will.
“Everybody wants to run for Congress, but nobody wants to run for state House and Senate,” said Nancy Worley, chairwoman of the Alabama Democratic Party.
Qualifying for the 2018 election doesn’t end until Friday, and last-minute filers are common in both parties.
Still, The Republican list of qualifiers is nearly a mirror image of the Democrats, with candidates seeking all but 28 state House and seven state Senate seats. Most of the unchallenged seats are in districts that have historically gone to Democrats.
Democratic Party officials at the state level and locally say that despite a surge in interest in federal office, it’s still difficult to get people to run for the less-prominent races, from school board on up.
“I guess we’ll just have to ride out this storm,” said Johnny Roberts, chairman of the Cherokee County Democratic Party.
Cherokee County is home to state Rep. Richard Lindsey, D-Centre, one of the few white Democrats to squeak through the 2010 election that gave Republicans a supermajority in both houses. Lindsey plans to retire this year, and two Republicans are vying for his seat. As of last week, according to Roberts, only one Democrat, a school board candidate, had qualified to run for anything in Cherokee County.
This wasn’t what Democrats expected. When Jones won his U.S. Senate victory in December, observers chalked the win up to a number of factors. Moore, well-respected among religious conservatives, faced accusations of sexual misconduct. Frustration with President Donald Trump likely spurred many Democrats to action. Democrats brought a ground game, organizing phone banks and canvassing efforts that are rare in a state that has run reliably red for decades. Democrats talked about turning newly-energized campaign volunteers into candidates who could fill the party’s gaps at street level – people who could fill school boards, probate courts and county commissions.
“We’ve had great interest in the local Democratic executive committee, but not as much for other races,” said Sheila Gilbert, chairwoman of the Calhoun County Democratic Party.
In Calhoun County last week, only three Democrats had qualified. One was Rep. Barbara Boyd, longtime holder of an Anniston-area seat in the state House. David Reddick and Fred Wilson will vie for a Calhoun County Commission seat that also takes in much of Anniston.
Worley and Gilbert blame a Republican-drawn district map for packing black voters into a few districts, discouraging Democrats for seeking office elsewhere. But Worley acknowledged that there’s also a lack of local organization in some counties. County-level organizers have historically been the primary recruiter of local candidates.
“There’s a difference between having a person named as chair and a true county structure,” Worley said. Some of the party’s problems, she said, trace back to the days when Democrats held every major office, and the party didn’t have to recruit.
There’s no shortage of Democrats willing to seek the state’s most high-profile offices. Former state Supreme Court chief justice Sue Bell Cobb, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox and former state lawmaker James Fields are all seeking the Democratic nomination for governor.
All but one of the state’s U.S. House seats have a Democratic incumbent or challenger. The holdout is House District 3, the seat now held by U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Saks. Television news anchor Mallory Hagan announced a run for the 3rd District seat, as a Democrat, last week, but has yet to qualify; Worley said a District 3 candidate had qualifying paperwork in the mail as of Thursday.
Even for federal-level candidates, the leap from activist to candidate can be daunting. Vestavia Hills Democrat Danner Kline left a 9-to-5 job at a beer distributor this month to focus on his race for the District 6 seat held by U.S. Rep. Gary Palmer, R-Hoover. Now he spends several hours per day talking to potential campaign donors, then spends his evenings working telephone banks. He tried to juggle work and the campaign for a few months, and decided he wasn’t doing either as well as he’d like.
“I just had to make a decision about what I wanted to do with my life,” he said. “It’s not selling beer, it’s helping people.”
Kline decided to run long before Jones’ Senate victory.
“For me, it was more about the enthusiasm among Democrats in reaction to Donald Trump,” he said.
Kline said he didn’t know how many activists were inspired to become candidates as a result of the Jones campaign, though he said the campaign did provide him with two things he needed – a core of experienced volunteers and neighborhood-by-neighborhood data on potential voters.
Gadsden lawyer Kyle Pierce was a campaign coordinator for the Doug Jones campaign in Etowah County in December. So far, he’s the only candidate for the District 28 seat in the state House, now held by Rep. Craig Ford, D-Gadsden.
Pierce said the Jones campaign isn’t what turned him into a candidate. He met former Gov. Albert Brewer while still an undergraduate at the University of Alabama, a meeting that encouraged him to go to law school and aim for public office.
“Brewer challenged me to help people,” he said.