Wednesday, April 3, 2024

What Marilyn Lands’ win says, and what it doesn’t

  One thing is clear from Marilyn Lands’ House District 10 victory: Abortion still motivates Democrats.

  Lands turned a seven-point loss in 2022 into a 25-point romp on March 26. And for the first time since 2002 – when then-Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman almost pulled off a shocking re-election upset – Alabama Democrats came out of an election with more legislators than they had before it.

  But the obvious question is whether Democrats can replicate Lands’ win around the state.

  And the answer right now is “only in a few places.”

  A House gain in Huntsville is good news for the party. Madison County, growing at a clip and pulling in people from around the country, has been trending blue for years. Lands’ win could represent a long-awaited breakthrough.

  But Huntsville is also something of a political outlier, with favorable conditions for Team Blue.

  Almost 47% of Madison County residents over the age of 25 have a bachelor’s or graduate degree. In Alabama, it’s 28%.

  The median household income in Madison County is a little over $80,000 a year. In Alabama, it’s just under $60,000.

  The median age in Madison County is 38.8 years. In Alabama, it’s 39.6 years.

  In short, Madison County looks more like northern Virginia than the state as a whole. That’s good for local Democrats. But it also means voters in Madison County might have been more receptive to Lands’ message than they would be elsewhere in Alabama.

  And the Democrats’ opportunities elsewhere in Alabama look scarce. The legislative maps approved in 2021 only created a handful of districts that the party could capture.

  House District 10 was one of them. House District 74 in Montgomery, flipped in 2022 by Rep. Phillip Ensler (D-Montgomery), was another. But the well runs pretty dry after that.

  House District 85 in Houston County, currently held by Rep. Rick Rehm (R-Dothan), is on paper a swing district. Democrats could also make a play for House District 25,  held by Rep. Phillip Rigsby (R-Huntsville), which includes parts of Limestone and Madison counties.

  But most legislative seats in Alabama heavily favor one party or the other. And as currently drawn, most districts favor Republicans. Democrats could pick up all the swing seats and barely dent the Legislature’s GOP supermajority. The demographic trends of a state that’s older and more rural than the country as a whole still give Republicans an edge.

Lessons for Republicans

  And yet, the GOP needs to be cautious.

  To be sure, most places in Alabama aren’t Huntsville. But many Alabamians share Lands’ views.

  The state’s abortion ban is unpopular. The Alabama Supreme Court’s attempt to ban in vitro fertilization might be even more despised, based on Republicans’ scramble to protect IVF. Teddy Powell, Lands’ Republican opponent, largely avoided discussing reproductive issues and focused on development. (Here’s hoping more Alabama Republicans talk about real issues and not Fox News fantasies.)

  And just because Lands’ victory will be difficult to replicate doesn’t mean it can’t be replicated. Lee County, the home of Auburn University, has similar educational attainment levels as Madison (though it’s much closer to the state’s median-income level). Tuscaloosa also seems like fertile ground for a reproductive rights message.

  Republican leadership in the legislature over the last two years has tried to avoid talking about the issue. Some of this is natural: When you have an effective abortion ban, there’s nowhere else to go.

  And yet the hard right of the party wants to try.

  Attorney General Steve Marshall says he can prosecute people helping women get out-of-state medical care. Rep. Ernie Yarbrough (R-Trinity) filed a bill last year that would have exposed women who have abortions to felony charges. Yarbrough and other House Republicans made it clear during debates on the IVF bill that they wanted to see restrictions on the procedure in the future. Yarbrough invoked the Holocaust during his comments.

  These are cruel and terrible policies. But the rhetoric that accompanies them will be poison in a general election with a decent Democratic candidate. And it could open a door for the party in areas they currently consider hostile.

  Seemingly unshakeable majorities in the Alabama Legislature have collapsed before. When Democrats controlled the body in 2001, they drew a map that seemingly locked in their majorities for a decade. But in 2010, they lost northern Alabama, and with it, the House and Senate.

  Time will tell if Lands’ victory is merely a sign that Huntsville has turned blue or a harbinger of a statewide Democratic revival. For now, Republicans remain secure in the legislature.

  The real test will come when a Democratic candidate takes Lands’ approach to Lee or Tuscaloosa counties. Or when a Democrat tries to run on abortion in a deep red suburban county like Shelby or Baldwin.

  That person would face long odds. But the GOP’s intransigence on abortion will certainly make things easier.

  And if reproductive rights continue to draw voters to the Democrats, Lands’ victory might not seem so extraordinary.

  About the author: Brian Lyman is the editor of Alabama Reflector. He has covered Alabama politics since 2006 and worked at the Montgomery Advertiser, the Press-Register, and The Anniston Star. His work has won awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors, the Alabama Press Association, and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights.

  This article was published by Alabama Reflector.

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