Thursday, July 1, 2010

Steve Flowers: Inside the Statehouse: Recapping the Republican gubernatorial primary, Part II

  Bradley Byrne’s bold challenging of Paul Hubbert’s omnipotence on Goat Hill was like waving a red flag in front of a raging bull. As we said last week, Hubbert’s fiefdom is to completely control the education budget and policy. That is his sandbox. He does not mind allowing the governor to play in his sandbox because after all he is the governor. However, he thinks it somewhat rude and arrogant if you come to play in his sandbox and kick sand on him.

  Hubbert usually does not play in the governor’s race. He considers the governor irrelevant in the process because Hubbert controls the legislature, which controls the purse strings. However, he figured he would teach Mr. Byrne a lesson. Hubbert formed a thinly veiled conduit PAC and called it the True Republican PAC. He enlisted one of the nation’s premier political media firms to design the negative ads against Byrne. The ads depicting Byrne as a liberal were brilliant and effective. Hubbert spent over $1 million against Byrne.

  About two months out from the June 1st primaries, Byrne was moving steadily up in the polls. When he got to 22 percent Hubbert unleashed the attack. It torpedoed Byrne and shot him dead in the water. Hubbert’s assault continued relentlessly. The ad was well done and effective. It played continuously. People probably saw the weathervane flipping in their sleep. Byrne and Roy Moore hovered around 22 percent each for about a month from April 1st to May 1st. Tim James and Robert Bentley were both at around 10 percent each with a month to go until the June 1st vote.

  As was expected, James began to spend his sizable war chest and began to move up in the polls. He hit pay dirt at about three weeks out with his television ad espousing English only driver’s licenses in Alabama and looking around a corner saying, “This is Alabama. We speak English. If you want to live here, learn it.” The ad garnered him nationwide attention and tons of free publicity on Fox News, the right wing news channel. James surged in the polls moving from 15 percent to 27 percent. He zoomed past Byrne and Moore, who were notched at 21 percent, and gleefully began a victory bus tour throughout the state.

  In the meantime, Byrne’s media guru hit James with a devastating ad revealing that he had made his money building and selling a toll bridge in Baldwin County with help from his father during his last days as governor. This ad was playing while James was playing on his bus. James’ polling and media men saw that the ad was hurting their boy, so they popped Byrne back. They began an overt exchange of negative ads as both camps assumed that Byrne and James were headed for an eventual runoff slugfest. Byrne’s bridge ad against James dropped him from 27 percent to 21 percent. However these six points did not go to Byrne. They went to the good doctor Robert Bentley. With seven days to go, Byrne was at 23 percent, James 21 percent, Moore 20 percent and Bentley was at 17 percent.

  Although Bentley had shown incremental movement throughout the entire campaign, this was a dramatic seven point jump for the doctor. Polls also revealed that Bentley was universally liked by all GOP voters. His ads depicting him as a solidly strong, down home physician resonated with voters even if he did not have the resources to run them as often as James and Byrne played their positive and negative spots. Bentley’s simple and positive ad saying, “Alabama is hurting and we need a doctor,” resonated with voters. However, what hit home more than any message in the entire campaign was him humbly and sincerely looking into the camera and saying to hurting Alabamians that, if elected, he will not take a salary as governor until Alabama reaches full employment.

  Everywhere I went and everybody I spoke with said they wanted to vote for that doctor but did not think he could win and they were not sure whether they wanted to waste their vote. As June 1st approached the polls revealed a four man dead heat with Byrne, James, Moore and Bentley each at around 20 percent with a remarkable 20 percent of the vote undecided. After visiting with a number of folks on Memorial Day, the day before the primary, it became obvious to me that most of that 20 percent had decided they liked Dr. Bentley enough to vote with their convictions whether he won or not.

  Well, the premise that Dr. Bentley cannot win is gone. Now that the conceptual barrier of electability has been shattered by the good doctor, it might mean trouble ahead. His momentum is obvious. He is like a locomotive coming down the track. He will be hard to derail.

  See you next week.

  About the author: Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 72 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at

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