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Matthew Stokes: Ivey can win without Trumpian rhetoric

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist

Now that Alabama’s long primary and runoff campaigns are completed, we can agree with the Calvinist who fell down a flight of stairs – we’re just glad it’s all over.  

For the first time in several election cycles, there is a possibility that the governor’s race will be competitive. The best candidate that Democrats have for any major office is the one that counts the most.  Walt Maddox is a formidable candidate for the governor’s seat.

The general election hasn’t really heated up yet but polling still shows a majority of voters willing to stick with Governor Kay Ivey. Though she was elevated to her position thanks to former Governor Robert Bentley’s decision to spoof Bill Clinton’s years in the Arkansas governor’s mansion, Ivey has served with energy and poise to this point.   

Republican voters have demonstrated a firm commitment to Ivey as evidenced by her decisive win in the GOP primary. The question for the Ivey campaign is how to expand her constituency as we move closer to November. For my own part, the key to this is to make the race entirely about Alabama.

Democratic enthusiasts will point to Doug Jones’ win over Roy Moore as proof that a Democrat can win major office in red state Alabama.  While this is true enough, it overlooks the fact that Jones was a candidate broadly respected and Moore was a candidate whose only support came from die-hard voters who refused to notice that he was, well, crazy.  Suburban support for Moore eroded in the weeks leading up to the election, and Jones won based on crossover votes as well as depressed GOP voters who either went for a third candidate or simply stayed home.

The governor’s race isn’t like that.  While Maddox is a good candidate, he isn’t Jones. And whatever fault one may find with Kay Ivey, she certainly isn’t Roy Moore. This year’s gubernatorial race has the potential to avoid all of that rancor. That gets to the biggest mistake that Ivey’s campaign could make – making this election a referendum on national politics and, specifically, President Donald Trump.

In just a short time, Ivey has a strong record on job creation.  Fair or not, the chief executive gets to lay claim to economic growth, and Alabama has landed a lot of that in recent months.  Moreover, Ivey and her administration have been willing to take on the Trump administration for its foolish and ill-conceived tariffs that pose a very real threat to Alabama workers and consumers.  

Ivey’s campaign should focus on building on this momentum. She can expand this groundwork by emphasizing a new focus on education that ensures Alabama’s high school students are prepared for these manufacturing jobs, and then making sure that the state’s ethics laws are firm, fair, and easy to navigate.  This will create a proper climate for business, but also ensure that all parties engage in an honest, ethical manner.

In recent days, Ivey’s campaign has castigated Maddox for supporting Hillary Clinton.  This is unhelpful. Maddox is a high ranking Democrat; why wouldn’t he vote for her?

The bigger problem is this in turn makes the race about presidential politics.  While die hard Trump supporters would certainly be heartened by Ivey’s support for the Donald, swing voters may find Maddox a more enticing option. Ivey can make a populist appeal without going full Trump.  It will be a delicate act, but she is a skilled politician and should make this is a priority.

Should Maddox and his team try to make this election about Donald Trump, Ivey should remind both Maddox and the voters that Trump is not governor of this great state. Indeed, there remains the possibility that our next governor’s term will outlast any Trump administration.  

I said earlier that making the race about Donald Trump and other right-leaning issues such as guns, abortion, and the Supreme Court would be a mistake.  As a political matter, that’s probably wrong. It could work well in the interim. All the same, I worry about alienating suburban swing voters who could be brought into the tent of the GOP.  

Alabama is still a broadly right-leaning state, and even with all the tumultuous news from the Trump administration, a strong Republican party should work hard to expand its base in state, but defining itself by Trumpism will not achieve that end.

Kay Ivey is a strong candidate with years of experience and power of incumbency behind her.  Her campaign should remain laser focused on creating a climate for business – both large and small – to thrive, strengthening our education system to provide workers for those jobs, and making certain our state’s ethics laws are promote honest and just interaction between government and business.  

There will inevitably come a time for populism and culture wars, but this is not it. Ivey’s best bet is a positive campaign of growth and development. Maddox is trying to depict himself as an agent of change but in reality that’s Ivey’s best case. Despite his positive rhetoric, the only candidate who benefits from divisive, Trumpian conflict is Walt Maddox, and Ivey’s team should avoid this at all cost.  

Maddox will attempt to claim that his policies are the future, but that crown belongs to the current governor. She should wear it proudly.

Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Follow him on Twitter @yellingstopAL or email him at [email protected].

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