Ken Hare In Depth: Alabama Democratic Party on life support

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - After Republicans swept statewide races in the 2010 and 2012 general elections, the question must be asked: Is the Alabama Democratic Party dead?

The answer, I believe, is "no" -- at least for now. But even party stalwarts should admit that the Alabama Democratic Party is on life support.

After state Democrats failed to field candidates in 10 of the 12 statewide races on the ballot on Nov. 6 and saw their candidates lose in the other two races, talk of Alabama once again being a "one-party state" -- just with Republicans in power instead of Democrats -- started being bandied about.

Alabama, like most of the Deep South, was for more than half a century a true one-party state. Democrats controlled the State House and virtually every courthouse. The real elections were the Democratic primaries, since essentially only Democrats won in the November general elections.

But a few decades ago that began to change, and it became dramatically obvious in the 2010 elections. Alabama Republicans won every statewide race on the ballot that year. When the counting was over, only one Democrat clung to a statewide office -- Lucy Baxley, the president of the Public Service Commission. The GOP held the governor's office, state constitutional offices, all of the statewide judicial offices, both U.S. Senate seats, six of the seven U.S. House seats, two of the three Public Service Commission seats, and strong majorities in both the Alabama House and Senate.

Then on Nov. 6 the changing of the guard became complete. Baxley, the last Democrat in statewide office, was ousted. Out of the 29 state political offices voted on statewide in Alabama, the GOP now holds every one. They also hold the two U.S. Senate seats, also voted on statewide.

But when I talked with Mark Kennedy, the chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party, following the election, he was quick to point out a very significant difference between the political situation now in Alabama and the old "one-party state" of the past century -- Democrats now, unlike Republicans then, fill many of the local offices in Alabama.

"We still have more than 50 percent of the elective offices in courthouses throughout the state," said Kennedy, a former associate justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.

He admitted disappointment over the party's poor showing in the election, but said he was "encouraged that we still have a lot of grassroots support." He spoke of the need to become better organized at the grassroots level, to develop "more intense messaging," and to "have a better conversation with people we know share our values."

But political scientist Glen Browder, also a former Democratic office holder from Alabama, does not believe that base is strong enough to stop the erosion of the party's power in the state. Browder, professor emeritus at Jacksonville State University, was a member of Congress, Alabama secretary of state, and a state legislator.

Browder predicted that for the near future the erosion of the Democratic base in Alabama -- and in many Southern states -- would continue.

"You cannot win just by defending local areas," Browder said. He said Democrats would continue to hold offices where black residents comprise strong majorities and in college towns, but said that was not enough to stem the erosion the party faces.

Browder, who helped to found a coalition of conservative Democrats called the "Blue Dogs" when he served in Congress, doesn't hold out much hope for the party to reverse GOP gains. But he believes that at least in the long term, there is a chance that Southern Democrats can again seriously challenge the GOP.

"But simply trying to sell your message better or to shout louder is not a constructive approach," Browder said. He also said that just waiting for the new GOP majority to "mess up" would not work either, since voters most likely would just replace one Republican with another.

However, over the long term, as newcomers move into the South and as younger voters possibly look for alternatives, he said Southern Democrats might widen their appeal -- but only if they "offer young people and others something more compelling" than they do now.

Prior to the recent election, Browder wrote a series of articles for the Huffington Post asking "Is Southern Democracy Dead?" In it, he suggested strategies that Southern Democrats might use to help recover relevancy in the future, including re-introducing themselves to the middle class and preparing a "popular moderate-to-progressive alternative for if-and-when" conditions change enough for the party to bounce back in the South.

But Browder emphasized that even with the right strategies, such a Democratic resurgence would be "iffy."

So for now, the Democratic Party clings to life in Alabama through the local offices its candidates hold. But for the immediate future, the party appears to be essentially irrelevant at the statewide level.


Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site.