With Alabama’s primary elections now fully in the rearview mirror, we can look back to see what happened and why it matters before turning to look ahead to see what’s next.
Of Alabama’s 3.3 million voters, only 431,328 cast votes in the July 17 primary runoffs. That’s a 12.7 percent turnout, which is low but not surprising given that the governor’s race wasn’t on the Republican ballot and there were no statewide Democratic contests. Such a small number of voters usually means the electorate is much more informed and motivated, which, as we will see, can affect races in interesting ways.
The biggest surprise or upset of the election was State Rep. Will Ainsworth’s defeat of Public Service Commission President Twinkle Cavanagh in the GOP primary for Lt. Governor. Months ago, almost no one would have predicted that Ainsworth could beat Cavanaugh given her far superior name recognition. I say almost no one because Ainsworth himself was confident in his plan from the beginning.
The Cavanaugh campaign’s decision to attack Ainsworth for his college arrest record was a risk that seems to have backfired. Negative attack ads generally work, but they are best deployed in higher turnout elections that feature more low-information voters who might be swayed by the latest salvo over the airwaves. With a more precise and engaged electorate, these attack ads garner more scrutiny as voters check out the claims and responses for themselves. Ainsworth was able to effectively poke holes in the veracity of the attack, and that may have been the difference in a race with just 2.5 percent separating the candidates.
Another surprise was the sheer margin of victory for both U.S. Rep. Martha Roby and Attorney General Steve Marshall. Roby romped over former Congressman Bobby Bright 68 to 32 as she seeks reelection for her fifth term in Congress. Marshall bested former Attorney General Troy King by a convincing 62 to 38 percent in a race that most thought would be close.
The nature of the runoff electorate may have impacted these races, too. Both Bright and King were running for offices they lost in 2010 when voters threw them out. The reasons were different, but the circumstances were similar, especially as it relates to this year. King’s loss to Luther Strange in the 2010 Republican primary was propelled by a series of ethical lapses and a cozy relationship with gambling interests. Bright’s distinction as a Democrat and record of voting for Nancy Pelosi as Speaker was easily exploitable by Roby, who took him down in the 2010 general election.
Fast forward eight years and many of those voters are still casting ballots, and they haven’t forgotten why they voted against Bright and King. Those dedicated, informed GOP voters are exactly the kind that show up for runoff elections in the middle of July. Sure, King and Bright had their share of support, but they each had what political operatives call a “ceiling” with GOP voters that was difficult to break through.
The stage is now set for the November elections. Roby will face Democratic nominee Tabitha Isner. The district swings heavily Republican, but there is already some national interest in Isner as a product of the Women’s March movement. Marshall will face Democratic nominee Joseph Siegelman for Attorney General. Yes, that’s the son of former Gov. Don Siegelman, and that name alone will make for an interesting race. Ainsworth will face Democratic nominee Dr. Will Boyd for Lt. Governor. Boyd is a Florence minister who made waves by coming out as a pro-gun, pro-life Democrat last year.
Of course, the marquee race will be at the top of the ticket, where Gov. Kay Ivey faces a challenge from Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox. It’s an uphill battle for Maddox in a deep-red state, and Ivey has the winds of a booming economy at her back. But, Maddox has signaled an aggressive campaign and won’t make it easy for her.
For the Republicans, running locked-arm as a “team” might be the best approach. The generic brand is much stronger for Republicans, and they aren’t sharing the ballot with divisive figures like Roy Moore who might turn off some voters.
Democrats’ best bet might be to divide and conquer. Splitting the races up into individual contests would allow candidates to talk about issues that might be more favorable to Alabama voters than their brand.
As of this writing, the November 6 election is 106 days away. Let the races begin.
Todd Stacy is the publisher of the Alabama Daily News. His 15-year career in Alabama politics spanned from the State House in Montgomery to Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Subscribe for free to his daily political news and analysis at www.ALDailyNews.