Based on the results of the June 5th primary, Alabama continues to affirm its reputation as one of this nation’s reddest of red states.
Case in point: My native northwest Alabama county of Franklin. Based on my quick but possibly faulty math garnered from The New York Times’ election data, I noticed that some 4,500 voters participated in Franklin County’s GOP primary, while only around 600 participated in the Democratic one.
This is a remarkable turnaround from the early 80’s, when I was a young Franklin county voter and GOP poll worker. The first GOP primary was held in Alabama in 1978. Before then, a GOP state convention nominated candidates, who generally served as sacrificial lambs in the November general elections.
The only basis for excitement for Franklin County Republicans way back then was the presidential elections in which GOP presidential nominees were generally competitive. With the exception of 1976, when Jimmy Carter swept the South, Republican presidential nominees carried the state. Franklin County, a historically yellow dog Democratic county, generally proved no exception to this rule, though Democrats continued to dominate the down-ballot offices, as they did in mf the rest of the state.
Early GOP Forerunners
Even so, there were a few talented Republican outliers holding aloft the Republican banner in spite of all these daunting obstacles.
One especially memorable Republican insurgent was an unusually gifted and charismatic GOP forerunner named James Douglas Martin, a highly decorated WWII combat veteran.
He was one of a handful of Republicans who secured a seat in Congress during the Goldwater sweep in ’64. How? By positioning himself to the right of Alabama Democrats, which, needless to say, took some doing.
He even employed a phrase about “returning to the principles of ’61 – 1861,” which, needless to say, sounded like a veiled call for secession – certainly a statement laced with irony, considering that he was a candidate of the party of Lincoln.
Martin was an unusually gifted public speaker with a very polished and charismatic bearing that rivaled Reagan’s. I can vouch for that, having attended in the late 70’s a Reagan Rally at the Jefferson County Civic Center, featuring Martin as a warm-up speaker to Reagan.
One of Martin’s most memorable acts of chutzpah was running against the wildly popular Lurleen Wallace as the GOP’s gubernatorial nominee in 1966. It proved to be another ill-fated Republican attempt at storming what remained an all but impregnable Democratic electoral wall. He polled only 31 percent of the vote and carried only Greene County and the maverick and perennial Republican county of Winston, known as the Free State.
He made a last attempt at a statewide office in 1978 against a relatively liberal Alabama incumbent senator named Donald Stewart. His campaign slogan: “Alabama Needs Another Jim,” referring to the late conservative Democratic Senator Jim Allen.
Martin was defeated handily and suffered a severe heart attack shortly thereafter but recovered and lived to be almost 100.
Comparatively late in life, he was appointed director of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Several of my Cooperative Extension colleagues worked with him and described him as one of the most brilliant and dynamic people they ever encountered.
In a very real sense, Jim Martin was the John the Baptist of Alabama Republican politics, one who entered the political fray as a Republican about 20 years prematurely. If he he had been born a generation later, he not only would have secured high office but also would be remembered today as one of the most gifted and influential statesmen in Alabama history – of that I have little doubt.
The 1986 Breakthrough
Republican fortunes improved markedly after the election of 1986, when the Alabama Democratic Party was widely perceived among voters as stripping conservative Democrat Charlie Graddock of his gubernatorial nomination on highly specious grounds and handing it to party stalwart Bill Baxley. That was the first sign of fissures within what had been the indomitable Alabama Democratic Party.
The obscure 1986 GOP nominee, Amway salesman and former Cullman County Probate Judge Guy Hunt, was swept into office and subsequently won reelection in 1990.
Corruption charges forced Hunt out before the completion of his term and he was succeeded by Lt. Governor Jim Folsom, Jr., who was upset in the 1994 election by former conservative Democrat-turned-Republican Fob James.
James was defeated in 1998 by the Democratic nominee, then Lt. Gov. Don Siegelman, but this Democratic resurgence proved short-lived.
Siegelman was defeated by congressman Bob Riley in 2002. Less than a decade later, the GOP secured control of both houses of the Legislature in 2010, the first time in 136 years.
Today the Republicans dominate the Democrats by more than a 2-1 margin in the Alabama House of Re and by 5-1 in the Alabama Senate.
With the possible exception of Utah and Oklahoma, Alabama, once considered virtually synonymous with the Democratic Party, is now the ruby-reddest Republican of U.S. states.