Yesterday’s Alabama primaries garnered plenty of national media attention, and no wonder. From the viral campaign ads produced by Tim James’s gubernatorial campaign and Dale Peterson’s campaign for agriculture commissioner (“They don’t give a rip about Alabama!”) to colorful names like Young Boozer and Twinkle Cavanaugh, this election was a pundit’s dream.
Tuesday’s results included many surprises. Though it certainly seems like a cliché, the results indicated that Alabama voters were tired of politics as usual. Many favorites, incumbents, and establishment candidates fared poorly on Tuesday.
In what was probably the biggest surprise of the evening, agriculture commissioner Ron Sparks defeated Rep. Artur Davis for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, 62–38. Davis was seen as the substantial favorite when he entered the race last year. However, he appeared to lose support when he voted against the health-care bill this spring. In fact, Davis was the only member of the Congressional Black Caucus to vote against the health-care-reform legislation. Many civil-rights organizations in the state endorsed Sparks. Sparks’s main campaign issue was the expansion of legalized gambling in order to pay for educational initiatives. Efforts to expand gambling in Alabama have not met with much success in the past; it is a highly salient issue in the state and should lead to a spirited campaign in the fall.
The Republican gubernatorial primary featured Roy Moore, former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court; Tim James, businessman and son of former governor Fob James; Bradley Byrne, former chancellor of the two-year-college system; and state representative Dr. Robert Bentley.
During the campaign, Moore seemed to devote most of his energies to cultivating support among religious conservatives in the state. This left Byrne and James to engage in an expensive media campaign attacking one another’s conservative credentials. The unexpected beneficiary of this appears to have been Dr. Robert Bentley: Lacking the name recognition and resources of the other candidates, Bentley ran a positive, issues-oriented campaign, and his pledge to forgo a salary until Alabama’s unemployment rate fell below 5 percent seemed to resonate well with some voters.
Byrne finished first with 28 percent. However, since he did not receive 50 percent, he will face the second-place finisher in a runoff. As of late Tuesday evening Dr. Bentley was clinging to a 140-vote lead over Tim James for second place. However, the second-place finisher probably will not be officially declared until a recount.
Congressman Parker Griffith made national headlines when he switched from the Democratic party to the Republican party in the December 2009. However, in his first Republican primary, he was resoundingly defeated by conservative Mo Brooks, 51–33. This was despite the fact that the National Republican Congressional Committee seeks to encourage party switchers and had a vested interest in supporting Griffith. Indeed, estimates indicate that Griffith spent $50 per vote, Brooks only $10 per vote. However, Griffith was criticized by many for not working beforehand to secure his welcome among the local GOP leaders before his party switch. Some of the comments he made while running for Congress in 2008 against Wayne Parker were probably also held against him by Republican primary voters.
Overall, in Alabama’s primary election, a number of incumbents — including Congressman Griffith and Attorney General Troy King — were defeated, as were establishment candidates like George Wallace Jr., who ran for state treasurer. Like their counterparts around the country, Alabama voters went to the polls clearly seeking change. Incumbents of both parties would do well to take note.
– Michael J. New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama.