On the road
Davis announced earlier this week that he won't run against U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., next year, because he simply doesn't feel he has enough time to lay the groundwork for a victory. (His posh new post on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee certainly didn't hurt, either.) The Birmingham Democrat's next opportunity to seek higher office will come in 2010, when he'd have to choose whether to stay in the House or mount a race for the Governor's Mansion or the U.S. Senate.
Davis' answer to that question may depend in large part not on his personal preference but on the decisions of others. U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., will be up for re-election in 2010, and one senses that he's the kind of guy who will seek another term if he's in anything remotely resembling decent health at that time. Shelby's massive campaign war chest would make the going very tough for Davis, as would his greater statewide name recognition.
But if Shelby bowed out, his retirement could open the door not for Davis but for the state GOP's heaviest hitter of all: Gov. Bob Riley, who just got re-elected with a huge majority. Riley would need a new gig after term limits forced him out, and assuming he's not vice president by then, his choices would be a return to Capitol Hill or a return to private life. As bizarre as it sounds, Davis might have a better chance of ousting a multi-term incumbent than of winning an open seat against the popular Riley.
The burning question for a possible gubernatorial run, meanwhile, lies in Davis' own party: Does Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom, Jr., want another shot at the state's top job? If he does, he'd be the strong favorite for his party's backing, and Davis would be reticent to spark a heated primary battle in a year when Republicans (at least thus far) would have no clear favorite. If Folsom passes, though, it may well be go time for the Davis for Governor campaign.
The third possibility for Davis would be to decline a statewide race and focus on building seniority in the House. His district is one of the safest in the country, and he's a rising star in the Democratic Party, which is likely to run the House for at least another election cycle or two, if not even longer. With so much power virtually guaranteed, the status quo option has to be tempting.
As unfortunate as it is, Davis also has to consider whether a Deep South state is ready to elect a black man to a major statewide office. On that front, Harold Ford, Jr., already may have provided an answer. Though he narrowly lost last year in Tennessee's Senate race, Ford nonetheless established that a black politician can pick up substantial white support in the South. Davis, whose family lacks the political notoriety of the Fords, may be in a better position to break through where his northern neighbor couldn't.
Regardless of what Davis does in 2010, his choice to defer the decision had to be welcome news to Sessions. Though Sessions' funding edge and incumbency would have made him the favorite, Davis' powerful charisma and intellect would have given him a realistic shot at an upset. With the big-name opponent out of the hunt, state Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, D-Mobile, and Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks are among those floating their names as Democratic challengers. Both would enter the race with less money and lower name recognition than Davis, however, making their uphill battle even steeper. Barring an utter, unforeseen disaster, Sessions likely will be on Capitol Hill until at least 2014.
By then, we'll know which path Davis took when he came to the fork in the road to his political future.