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Steve French: 1988 and the seeds of Alabama’s Republican rule

By STEVE FRENCH, former Alabama State Senator and Republican political operative

Recently, we buried the first president I had the pleasure to work for: George Herbert Walker Bush. The personal memories associated with that event, along with the ending of 2018, have caused me to reflect on a pivotal year in Alabama politics; 1988.  

As hard as it is to believe today, 30 years ago, Republicans weren’t much of a factor in state politics.  At the start of 1988, Alabama Democrats wielded almost all of the influence in Alabama politics as they elected: all but one statewide officeholder; roughly 85% of the Legislature (119 of 140 seats); both U.S. Senators; 5 of the 7 Congressional seats.  Additionally, Democrats controlled 60 of the 67 county Courthouses.

It was in this environment, as a 25 year-old, that I was hired to run the ALGOP in January 1988.

Despite the challenges Alabama Republicans faced, many of us saw a realignment opportunity presenting itself. In the previous election, for the first time in modern history, Alabamians proved they would vote for state Republican candidates when they elected a Republican Governor, Guy Hunt. The election of Governor Hunt and the popularity of outgoing President Ronald Reagan coupled with an emerging technology-driven economy in Alabama led us to believe a new Alabama was possible.

Conversely, many ‘in the know’ thought leaders argued that both Reagan and Hunt were aberrations and that neither would have any lasting impact on voters in an overwhelmingly Democratic state.  

The early indicators in 1988 seemed to buttress the ‘aberration thought’.  In January of 1988, the Birmingham Post Herald published a story by Thomas Hargrove about a statewide survey the paper had commissioned.  The survey showed that voters in Alabama still saw themselves as democrats by a wide margin.  In fact, in the survey, 41% of Alabamians considered themselves to be democrats while only 20% of Alabamians thought they were Republicans.  We had a long journey in front of us.

Step one of the political transformation to a Republican State came in March of 1988.  The initial “Super Tuesday” Presidential primary was held and, more than 212,000 voters went to the polls and asked for the blue Republican ballot.  This number of blue ballots was easily the ‘high water mark’ for participation in a Republican primary. And, for the first time, Alabama Republicans played a significant role in determining the Republican Presidential nominee: George Herbert Walker Bush.

Step two of the 1988 electoral transformation came in June when the ALGOP held its other primary to determine nominees for Statewide and county offices.  Once again, the number of people voting in the ALGOP primary set a record for totals for similar election cycles.

The third step during 1988 was the strong November showing by GOP Nominee George Bush against the Democrat nominee Michael Dukakis.  When Bush earned 815,000 votes and beat Dukakis by more than 250,000 votes, he received a vote that almost matched that garnered by Ronald Reagan in 1984.  

Clearly, the Bush results demonstrated Alabamians were enamored with the conservative policies of Republicans and not just the personality of a popular President.

As significant as the margin of the Bush victory was the fact the Democrat nominee had garnered slightly less than 40% of the votes cast. Given that, in January, 41% of survey respondents thought they were Democrats, the November results meant all ‘independents’ and some ‘democrats’ had chosen to vote Republican.  And, more counties were voting Republican. The significance of the November election results weren’t lost on incumbent democrats either.

The final watershed event of 1988 was realized when 8 sitting democrat Legislators (and most county elected officials in Shelby County) switched parties.  These ‘party switch’ actions demonstrated that Republican strength was more prevalent in more places around the State.

1988 and George Herbert Walker Bush’s Presidential election was a ‘game changer’ for Alabama Republicans and for Alabama.  

I was fortunate to work for Bush and to be in the game during this momentous year; a year that birthed the new ALGOP.

Steve French served in the Alabama State Senate from 1999 to 2010. He also worked as Executive Director of the Alabama Republican Party from 1988 to 1990, as RNC Regional Political Director in 1991, and as the Bush/Quayle State Director in 1992. 

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