Since their staggering defeat in November, Democrats have been scrambling to prove they can still win big elections. After numbing, highly publicized losses in Montana and Georgia earlier this year, the focus now turns to Alabama. The special election to fill the Senate seat vacated by Donald Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was reelected in 2014 with no Democratic challenger, is in full campaign stride, with 10 Republicans and seven Democrats competing in the August 15th primary. Eyes will then turn to the general election in December. In a solidly red state whose legislature has been in the GOP’s control since 2010, many are looking at the December election as a place where Democrats can clinch the redemption they desperately need.
One reason for that optimism is that Alabama has, over the last two years, been an unmitigated disaster for the Republican Party. While they still hold all statewide elected public offices, they have taken some serious hits. In May 2016, controversial Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore was suspended and removed from his seat by the Alabama Court of the Judiciary after he issued an administrative order against the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples. This removal from the bench was Moore’s second in his career on the state’s highest court.
Quickly following Moore’s removal, Alabama’s Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard was convicted of 12 felony ethics charges relating to campaign finance violations and using his position for personal gain. He was sentenced to four years in prison.
The bleeding didn’t stop there. The party was rocked again by the resignation of Republican Governor Robert Bentley, who had been facing possible impeachment. Bentley resigned amid a sex scandal involving his senior political advisor, Rebekah Caldwell Mason.
“There has been a resurgence over the last six months in the state Democratic Party,” Michael Hansen, one of seven candidates vying for the Democratic nomination, tells Playboy. He points to the rise in attendance in town halls and other Democrat-hosted events as evidence. There is now a growing hope that such increases in engagement will equate to votes. December’s special election, then, is turning into a real test for the state Democratic Party.
The turmoil surrounding the highest levels of elected Republicans in the state has left the door open to a potential resurgence for the Democrats.
“People are fed up,” Hansen continues, speaking directly to the scandals involving GOP members in Alabama. He goes on to mention the recent plea deal of Democratic state legislator Oliver Robinson, for bribery from a coal company to fight EPA efforts to clean up areas of North Birmingham. Hansen, who is also the Executive Director of GASP, an Alabama based environmental organization, asks, “Why aren’t we calling out our own? I want to know where the state party is on that. People are just sick and tired of cronyism and politics as usual.”
Cole Manders, once recognized as a rising star by the Alabama Republican Party, also sees an opening for the Democrats to make some headway. “The next couple of statewide elections in Alabama are going to be surprising,” Manders says. He agrees that the turmoil surrounding the highest levels of elected Republican officials in the state has left the door open to a potential resurgence for the Democrats and others. “The current state of affairs will present an opportunity for otherwise unlikely candidates and interest groups to make up a lot of ground,” he says.
Manders, who recently called out Kayla Moore, the wife of Judge Roy Moore, for her homophobic comments that a lesbian was unfit to serve as a commandant in the United States Air Force Academy, says that while he thinks Alabama voters are open to a more progressive message, it is a two-pronged problem. “One prong is the current state of affairs; the other prong is the culture.” He adds that while overall the culture hasn’t changed in the state, the state of affairs in politics have opened people up to alternative points of view.
Hansen, who is also gay, makes it clear that culturally, things haven’t changed. He says that the Democratic establishment in Alabama has asked him to “tone it down” and to “not rub [his sexual preference] in their faces.” Says Hansen, “The call is coming from inside the house.”
Since his days as a rising star in the GOP, Manders has come out publicly as gay and also developed a more moderate approach to politics. When asked if he still considers himself a Republican, he says, “No, and it’s not because I’ve switched to the Democratic Party.” The essence of the problem in our country today, he says, is “people now feel that you have to pick one side or the other.” Calling for the need for elected officials to work together on solutions, he points to the disaster around our nations health care reform. “There was a time that adults in the state of Alabama would look and say ‘You know, I like what this Democrat has to say, and this Republican we just elected didn’t work.’ It wasn’t some party loyalty test,” he says.
Dr. John Killian, an Alabama pastor, former chaplain of the Alabama GOP and past president of the Alabama Baptist Convention, says that the state will be fine if they elect any of the top four Republican candidates. He says, however, “I do think the Democrats can be competitive.”
“Roy [Moore] or Luther [Strange, another Republican candidate,] have negatives among the public that will pull numbers off their totals.” He points to Moore’s showing in his last statewide election as a possible sign of trouble. “The last time Roy ran statewide, he barely won in a year when the state voted solid for Mitt Romney. Plus, Republican suburbs in Alabama have never supported him.” He questions whether Moore can get 50 percent, but points out that in the past, his supporters have been the most dedicated on election day.
He adds that Strange, the interim senator who was appointed by now former Governor Bentley to complete the term of Sessions, may be hurt politically by his connections to the former governor. But Strange does have the backing of Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and in a recent poll by Politico Pro, led the pack of 10 Republican candidates in the primary with 33 percent of the vote.
Following Trump’s Twitter-based criticism of Sessions, Republican candidates have resorted to questioning each others’ loyalty to Trump over Sessions on the campaign trail, but Killian doesn’t foresee any blowback from the president’s failure to deliver on campaign promises impacting this race. “Trump is very popular in Alabama right now and Jeff Sessions has always been extremely popular here.” He also mentions that it seems that two candidates, U.S. Congressman Mo Brooks and Strange, were once trying to “Out Trump” each other. According to him, the only change in the race since the open spat between Trump and Sessions is that “it’s dulled the rabid effort by Strange to campaign as the shadow of Trump.”
I do think the Democrats can be competitive.
Dr. John Killian,
former chaplain of the Alabama GOP
Hansen disagrees and says he hears complaints from voters about Trump’s “lack of leadership and conflicts of interest.” He also said that the moves of Sessions to roll back criminal justice reforms is not sitting well with a large number of constituents, adding that Democrats and libertarian-minded Republicans who are leaders on this issue are “frustrated.”
Voters in Alabama should pay close attention to candidates who are merely “trying to ride Trump’s coattails” instead of offering any real solutions, says Manders. While he believes a Democrat can win—Robert Kennedy Jr., a former Naval officer, leads the race on the left—he admits that “it would have to be one hell of a candidate with one hell of a message running one hell of a campaign. It’s not a discredit to their abilities; it’s the nature of the beast.”
The question to be answered is, in the current field of 17, does such a candidate exist? If he or she does, will they be able to break through the competition and have a chance to be recognized by Alabama voters before the December general election? With the voters of Alabama supporting firebrand candidates in the past, including the likes of Moore and even Donald Trump, it certainly isn’t beyond the realm of possibilities for those same voters to cast a contrarian vote for an out-of-nowhere candidate. At this point for Alabama, the question may not be if that will happen, but merely when.