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Whatever happens in Cleveland, Alabama GOP’s path remains unclear

Trump in Texas

Donald Trump speaks at a rally at Gilley's Dallas on Thursday, June 16, 2016. (Rodger Mallison/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS)


What happens in Cleveland this week could change the way Americans view the Republican Party for the next generation.

But whether the Republicans give us a pro-wrestling-style blowout or showcase a calmer, more serious Donald Trump, it’s not clear much will change for the Alabama GOP, political scientists say.

“Alabama is one of those states where the election could almost be conducted by the Census Bureau, due to the level of racial polarization,” said George Hawley, a political science professor at the University of Alabama.

Presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump has defied conventional political wisdom, even among data-driven whiz kids who predicted other recent elections with creepy accuracy. What’s ahead is anybody’s guess.

In Alabama, there’s even more uncertainty. Former House speaker Mike Hubbard faces four years behind bars after an ethics conviction last month. Gov. Robert Bentley awaits the call for impeachment hearings. None of the the biggest Bentley critics in the GOP seem to have a strong base of support, leaving the party without a public face for now.

It may feel like a defining moment for the party both at the state and federal level. But Alabama’s GOP may not have much incentive to make major changes, political scientists say.

A Trump defeat in November, if it’s a sound one, could force Alabama Republicans to rethink their approach, said Jacksonville State University emeritus political science professor Glen Browder.

“They’re probably not going to be looking backward a lot,” said Browder, a former Democratic member of Congress. “If Trump loses, you wouldn’t have a lot of people saying let’s go back to the days of Trump, Bentley and Hubbard.”

Republicans did rethink their campaign strategy after Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012. Months after that defeat, the party released a review of the election – a review that concluded that the party needed to reach out to minority voters to be competitive in future national elections.

That approach won over some of the party’s leaders, but not the party base. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, both Hispanic Gen Xers, picked up support from some of the GOP’s national leaders in part because of their presumed ability to reach a wider range of voters. Primary voters chose Trump instead.

In Alabama, former party chairman Bill Armistead was an advocate of the GOP minority outreach effort. While he was chairman, the party for the first time fielded more than half a dozen black candidates for statewide positions. Most didn’t win their primaries, though one Troy Towns of Montgomery, is now vice chairman of the state party.

Armistead still believes the GOP has much to offer minority voters.

“We’ve had an African-American president for almost eight years and minority communities are still not better off,” said Armistead, a former Rubio supporter who’s now supporting Trump. “People can look at this objectively.”

Asked if Trump’s victory represents the defeat of the minority-outreach approach, Armistead said Trump is polling no worse with Hispanics than Mitt Romney did in 2012. Hawley, the University of Alabama professor, said that’s true.

Well before Trump’s rise, Hawley was working on a book about “right-wing critics” of the Republican Party – growing numbers of voters who are conservative on most issues, but disagree with the party line on key issues such as trade or military intervention.

Trump, Hawley said, has won many of those voters with “strategic ambiguity,” sending seemingly contradictory signals on issues such as Planned Parenthood or health care reform. Hawley said a Trump victory in November could shift others in the party across the country to a similar approach.

“You could see an approach that’s more openly populist and less ideologically consistent,” Hawley said.

Bentley, the embattled governor, supported John Kasich in the primary, and some of Bentley’s most vocal critics within the Alabama party are Trump supporters. Still, Hawley doesn’t think a Trump victory in November would boost the chances of Trumpists in Alabama’s party. Trump lacks a “ground game” – his own political organization – in the state, Hawley said.

Unlike Republicans nationwide, Alabama Republicans would face little outside pressure to change, even if Trump loses big in November. Democrats are still in disarray after their 2010 rout in the midterms. In 2014, Democrats hoped merely to chip away at the Republican supermajority in the Legislature, while hanging on to remaining county offices. Republicans won still more offices in that election. Browder said it will take time before the party has enough organization to push back at the GOP.

“Just saying you’re the opposition party isn’t enough,” Browder said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.