Early this spring, when the prospect of an Artur Davis v. Bradley Byrne gubernatorial race seemed like a real possibility, if not an inevitability, I was energized about the future of Alabama. For the first time in a while, two reformers would garner their parties’ nominations. We were going to see great debates about education, economic development and ethical government. It would be a campaign that firmly challenged the entrenched interests of both parties in our hyper-political state capital.
Then it all fell apart.
Tim James went xenophobic. Byrne responded by pandering to the least common denominator. This negative back-and-forth made little-known and under-funded Robert Bentley a player through his positive messaging and refreshing display of an absence of self-focus.
Davis flopped. Polls showed him in little to no trouble, so he went old school. He coasted, focused more on big picture pontificating and less on grassroots organizing, and pissed away important relationships with the state’s black establishment. Ron Sparks, who had done little more than talk about gambling and a lottery, trounced him on primary day.
The prospect of a high-minded, transformational campaign now seems like it was never possible. This primary season, on both sides, has left me more cynical and less hopeful for the future of our state than I’ve ever been.
The most disappointing candidate wasn’t Tim James, though he was the driver that turned the campaign into an appeal to our worst selves. It wasn’t Sparks, who never even made one good progressive proposal and relied on a decades-old playbook. It wasn’t Davis, who threw away his chance to push my party—the Democratic Party—in a new direction in this state by running an elitist and lazy campaign.
The most disappointing candidate is Bradley Byrne.
Byrne was the prohibitive favorite from day one. A lot of establishment Republicans—as well as conservative reformists and pro-business moderates—backed him early, at least behind closed doors. His fundraising was strong, and a corps of young, dedicated staffers and volunteers brought energy to his candidacy. Plus, Alabama was trending red, and he was poised to be the heir apparent to a relatively popular Bob Riley.
I won’t lie; a lot of my friends jumped on the Byrne bandwagon, and I was even attracted to his reform message and intelligence on issues like education. Sure, he inflated his role in “cleaning up” the two-year college system, but he wasn’t your standard Alabama Republican. He was ready to be progressive, and he wasn’t interested in playing to fears and ignorance.
Then Tim James staked his candidacy on English-only driver’s license exams and putting the fire to sexual predators. He embodied Alabama’s most ignorant. He reveled in it. And most sadly, Alabama’s GOP primary voters warmed to it. His polling numbers shot up. He became a competitor. And Bradley Byrne abandoned everything so many had hoped for in his candidacy.
His first ad showed a gun-toting, abortion-hating, talking point-spewing generic Republican. He promised to sue the federal government over President Obama’s new health care plan, went old school by attacking unions and pimping his religious beliefs and family, pinned the Gulf oil spill on Obama, and launched a full-scale negative assault on generally-positive Robert Bentley. He became the anti-progressive.
Byrne’s 180-degree turn throughout this primary showed his incessant desperation to win, not to change Alabama’s political culture for the better.
And now, he lost because of it.
Tuesday night, Robert Bentley showed that a positive campaign—one built on guaranteeing selflessness and solving pressing issues—will win in Alabama. He adopted the new victory strategy: promise something different and, more importantly, be something different.
Like him or not, political observers must admit that Barack Obama proved that focusing on ideas and calling people to their best selves can win campaigns. Byrne seemed to fear that model.
In my mind, Bradley Byrne will go down as yet another candidate who sacrificed his ideals for what he hoped would be temporary electoral success. It didn’t pay off, and I hope future candidates realize that.
For now, we’ll stay stuck in the past and keep longing for that transformational campaign.
Ian Sams is a senior majoring in political science and former president of the College Democrats.