By Steve Flowers
When talk turns to politics in Alabama it usually leads to the governor’s race. It doesn’t matter if the governor’s race is four years away, political gossip starts early as to who will run. In Alabama politics the governor’s office is the brass ring. As each new race approaches it’s talked about more than ever around coffee clubs and kitchen tables from Sand Mountain to the Wiregrass. It’s comparable to college football being the king of all sports in Alabama.
This infatuation with the governor’s office is borne out in voting history. In most states the presidential race sees the largest voter turnout, but that’s not the case in Alabama, where historically we have voted heavier in gubernatorial years. However, the turnout has gotten closer in the last few decades, since Alabama became a two-party state. The emergence of the Republican Party in Alabama since 1964 has caused us to be more like the national norm. However, in the 40 years prior, the largest turnout in Alabama was in the Democratic Primary for governor.
Gubernatorial years also have most of the important local offices up for grabs, which may account for some of the large turnout. There’s a popular political saying, made famous by former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neil, that “all politics is local.” This year is a local year with all 67 sheriffs on the ballot as well as all 105 House members and 35 state senators. The governor’s race along with the other constitutional offices, such as lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, state auditor, treasurer and agricultural commissioner are on the ballot this year.
Alabamians began voting Republican for our Washington politicians in 1964. We broke the ice for governor in 1986 when Guy Hunt became the first Republican governor since Reconstruction. We have had one Democratic governor since 1986. Don Siegelman served one term from 1998-2002. Since 1986 we have had six Republican victories for governor and one Democrat 16 years ago. Gov. Robert Bentley is favored to make that 7-1 this year.
There are still some rural sheriffs and probate judges who continue to run as Democrats. However, the GOP hierarchy have targeted some of these sheriffs for extension in this year’s election plan.
You’ve seen a lot of negative ads and attacks this year. The book on Alabama politics, according to George Wallace, is more people will vote against someone or something than for someone or something. Wallace ran against integration for years and when that wore out he ran against the big money special interests and corporations. “Big Jim” Folsom ran against the same big mules. Sadly, polling reveals that negative or attack ads are effective. Wallace and Folsom knew this instinctively before polling and used it effectively.
Wallace shared another interesting caveat with me. He said he would rather someone say he was going to win than they were going to vote for him. This is called the bandwagon effect. People like to vote for the winner. They say, “I don’t want to waste my vote.”
In keeping with the tradition of enjoying the governor’s race, I will begin a 12-week series on past governor races. Beginning next week, I will take one governor race each week and extol and delve into the intricacies of the gubernatorial contest for that year beginning with the 1958 governor’s race. This 12-week series should whet your appetite for the upcoming governor’s race. Hopefully, this series will be an enjoyable stroll down memory lane for many of you. Those of you who are younger readers should find the next 12 weeks of Alabama political history informative.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 72 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.