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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Long Night in Alabama

I didn’t actually go to Alabama last night, but I felt like it after staring at county returns half the night trying to understand the capricious will of that state’s electorate–or rather the 30% or so of them who voted in statewide primaries.
The shocker of the evening, of course, was Ron Sparks’ landslide 62-38 victory over Artur Davis in the Democratic gubernatorial race. Davis was the prohibitive front-runner for many months, and though there was sparse public polling in the race, he did have an 8-point lead in an R2K/DKos poll done less than two weeks out.
Now some people will look at the phenomenom of a black candidate unexpectedly losing a primary in Alabama and assume it’s all about race. And some progressives who think Artur Davis is a sell-out pseudo-Republican will assume it’s all about ideology. But I think Davis simply deployed a mistaken strategy, and that Sparks ran a smart campaign. Davis clearly tried to position himself for a general election far too early, and in keeping his distance from traditional Democratic groups, he managed to convey the sense that he wasn’t interested in their votes any more than in their public support. In a low-turnout primary, that was fatal.
It also shouldn’t be completely ignored that in an otherwise largely issues-free environment, Sparks had an issue–support for greatly expanded and regulated public gaming–that’s a proven vote-winner among Alabama Democrats.
In any event, Davis managed to lose upwards of half the African-American vote–which is why you can’t chalk up his defeat to some sort of southern-fried Bradley Effect–while getting crushed in heavily-white northern Alabama. It was truly shocking to see the first viable African-American statewide candidate in Alabama lose majority-black counties in his own congressional district like Dallas (Selma), Hale, Marengo, Perry and Wilcox. But it’s possible to over-interpret this election: with the exception of Mobile, Artur Davis didn’t do well much of anywhere. And so, ironically, Ron Sparks enters the general election with the kind of biracial coalition behind him that Davis sought to create, in all the wrong ways.
The Republican gubernatorial primary is going to a recount because only 208 votes separate the second- and third-place finishers, Dr. Robert Bentley and Tim James. Bentley’s performance was nearly as surprising as that of Sparks; he was in single digits in the R2K/DKos poll, while James spent $4.4 million–nearly half of that his own money–and made his constant feuding with Bradley Byrne the central focus of the entire race. And it appears Bentley’s impressive showing was at least partly attributable to voters tired of the Byrne-James slugfest.
Meanwhile, Parker Griffith became the latest and no-so-greatest of party-switchers to go down to ignominous defeat, in his case losing a multi-candidate Republican primary without even making it to a runoff. At the end of a long evening, his fate brought a smile to the face of even the weariest of Democrats.

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