Wednesday, June 02, 2010

How Not to Navigate the Primary/General Two-Step. Or, Did Artur Davis Have Any Choice Than to Move Right???

Among yesterday's primary results, probably the most interesting was on the Democratic side in Alabama's governor's race. For a long time I've been puzzling over the candidacy of Artur Davis, currently (but not for long) the House member from the state's 7th District, centered around Birnmingham. For many national observers, Davis was seen as a shining light. The Harvard educated African American was envisioned as kind of a southern Obama--pragmatic, clear-eyed, and electable. First elected in 2002, Davis secured a coveted seat on the Ways and Means Committee and even got some talk as a potential Attorney General before Eric Holder got the nod.

This year, Davis mounted a campaign for Governor and in doing so had to figure out how to win both a primary (which necessarily entails catering to a more liberal audience) and the general in a state that has been pretty hostile to Democrats--at least state wide--in recent years. As an African American candidate, given the state's history, the job was all the more difficult. Davis' strategy seemed to be to tack to the right during the primary season in the belief that he could engender himself to the moderate voters he would need in the general. Davis was one of the few House Democrats to vote against the Health Care Reform Bill and during the campaign went to great lengths to distance himself from President Obama. Likewise, as much of the coverage of the race makes clear, Davis also decided not to court Alabama's black political brokers.

What happened?? Yesterday he got crushed by State Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks. Sparks won 62% of the vote and 62 of the state's 67 counties. Sparks filled the vacuum created by Davis' passivity toward the black community, winning a sizable percentage of the black vote. He was endorsed by several of the state's leading liberal organizations, including the powerful teacher's union, in a campaign that moved leftward while Davis moved right.

In the post mortems being written today, Davis' strategy is being decried. By focusing on moderates he was, the argument goes, putting the cart before the horse. Primaries and generals are very different animals. They bring out different electorates, emphasize different issues oftentimes, and thus require different strategies and coalitions. Candidates who try to win both elections with one strategy--given these differences--oftentimes fail. What is worth thinking about, however, is whether a candidate like Davis had any other choice than to move rightward as soon as he could. Given the state's history and political profile, can a left of center African American win statewide?

Alabama Primary Coverage:

Montgomery Advertiser
Birmingham News
Washington Post

County by County results
County Results Map


Amanda said...

Who is to say that an African American should have more difficulty being elected in the state of Alabama than any other state? "Given our states history", I would venture to guess that Alabamians are much more tolerant to other races than the citizens many states, which have such a low population of minorities that they have never learned what it means to be racially diverse. The state of Alabama is over one quarter black. This is a very favorable demographic to work with for a black political candidate.

CBMurray said...

There's a difference between the population of minorities a state has and that state's willingness to vote for them. Most of the recent evidence suggests, in fact, that the relationship is inverse. Those states with the highest % of African Americans have had white electorates the least likely to vote for them. Check out Schaller's "Whistling Past Dixie." Kerry got a higher % of the white vote in 2004 in AL than Obama did in 2008. If you consider that Kerry was running against an incumbent, was portrayed as an "elite" northeasterner, and ran in an electoral context much less favorable than '08, that's pretty striking if you ask me.

Anonymous said...