Thursday, June 03, 2010

This would be a damn shame

Artur Davis' announcement that he wants to stay away from elected offices and political appointments is understandable, considering how fresh the pain of his unexpectedly large loss in the Democratic gubernatorial primary still is. But given the four- term congressman's great intellect and experience, it'd be a loss for Alabama if he makes good on his pledge to stay away for good.

As I said in the comments here, I'm of the "never say never in politics" school. Five or 10 years is a lifetime in politics, and at 42, Davis is young enough that he could sit out several election cycles before trying for a comeback if he wanted. Even if he does choose to spend the rest of his career in private law practice, though, something tells me we haven't heard the last of Davis.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

What's next for Artur Davis?

Getting thrashed almost 2-to-1 isn't exactly how most politicians like to kick off the summer. Unfortunately for U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, D-Birmingham, that's exactly what happened to him Tuesday in Alabama's Democratic gubernatorial primary.

If you're looking for explanations of how Davis went, in short order, from presumptive nominee to distant second, I offered a couple of major reasons here. (You also can find great accounts at Doc's Political Parlor and King Cockfight, the state's most authoritative and most hilariously incisive political blogs, respectively.) But if you're looking for admittedly uninformed guesswork as to the next steps for Davis, you're in the right place. There are no easy answers, but let's examine a few possibilities.

If at first you don't succeed: Run, run again. Davis could come back with another gubernatorial campaign in 2014 if Ron Sparks falls short this fall. But that'd be a non-starter if Davis doesn't work hard to rebuild support among black voters who felt scorned by his shocking "no" vote on health care reform and his refusal to pursue the black establishment's backing. He'd also have to settle on a simple, memorable campaign theme and unleash more of the Davis we saw during his concession speech Tuesday night.

Mr. Davis goes (back) to Washington: It'd be easy to assume Davis could just wait a couple of years and return to his old congressional seat in 2012. But he no longer will have the advantages of incumbency at that point, and he struggled Tuesday in many key areas of his district. If you're into dreaming big, Davis could challenge for Jeff Sessions' seat in 2014 or hope Richard Shelby retires before 2016. Remember, though: As conservative as the Alabama electorate has become in state races recently, it's even more conservative when it comes to national offices. Barring an unforeseen sea change, it'll be a generation or two before a Democrat -- any Democrat -- can harbor serious hopes of winning a U.S. Senate race in Alabama.

By appointment only: Davis, as you may have heard, was a law school classmate of a guy named Barack Obama, who, as you may have heard, is the leader of the free world. That would seem to help Davis' case to be appointed to an open executive-branch job or federal judgeship. One caveat is that Obama may be a little less open to this possibility after that "no" vote on health care reform. Another is that Davis likely would have to forsake any future political ambitions were he to get a lifetime judicial appointment. A shorter-term executive position would leave the door open, but it also might drop Davis off the Alabama political radar entirely. Anything short of a full-fledged Cabinet position or an in-state U.S. attorney post probably wouldn't be worth it if Davis hopes to run for office again.

Take what you can get: We elect more than just the governor in Alabama, and Davis is fully qualified for many of those jobs, too. A run for a lower state office -- lieutenant governor or attorney general would seem likeliest -- could present fewer entry barriers for Davis and would garner valuable state-level experience to which he could point in a future gubernatorial campaign. The previously mentioned concern about rebuilding black support still applies. So does the still unanswered question of whether the full Alabama electorate is ready to elect a black man to one of the state's highest offices.

Take it easy: Davis first ran for Congress in 2000, and he first won in 2002. After almost a decade in the public eye, he might just choose to retreat into private life for a while and spend some more time with his family. Absolutely no one could blame him for that. But for the state's sake, I hope he finds his way back into public life sooner or later. Artur Davis is an intelligent and relatively young man who still has a lot to offer Alabama. One election setback hasn't changed that.

Lessons from the primaries that just won't end

It's a gubernatorial election featuring a margin so tight that it fairly could be said to fall into "rounding error" territory. Also, the Democratic nominee is best known for supporting an expansion of gambling. If "2002" flashed into your mind before you read this sentence, congratulations: You, like me, pay way too much attention to Alabama politics. Let's consider a few early takeaways from the 2010 state primaries.

A good poll is hard to find: Maybe you thought Ron Sparks would beat Artur Davis for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Maybe you thought Robert Bentley had a chance to run, say, a strong third on the Republican side by picking up some voters disgusted by the free-for-all between Bradley Byrne and Tim James. Maybe you thought lower-than-expected turnout could have unanticipated consequences. But if you claim to have known both that Sparks would trounce Davis almost 2-to-1 and that Bentley would surge all the way to second place (by a mere 40 votes at this writing), then you're either a liar or someone who needs to make way more money as a pollster than you do now.

The black establishment's support still matters a lot: At least if you're a Democrat running for high office in Alabama. When I read that Dallas County, right in the heart of Davis' congressional district, had gone for Sparks, I knew Davis' night would end early. Say what you will about Sparks' pursuit of backing from the Alabama Democratic Conference and the Alabama New South Coalition, but the decision got results at the ballot box. Davis' move to vote against health care reform while stating support for a hypothetical bill that would do all the things that the actual bill did couldn't have helped him among the party's more progressive wing, either.

Seriously, Bentley's campaign was lights-out: How many non-politically-minded people outside Tuscaloosa County could have told you who Bentley was a year ago? You probably could count the number on your fingers. Now, seemingly out of nowhere, he's in the thick of the GOP governor's race, and he has an excellent chance of getting the nomination if he hangs on and makes the runoff. (If you think a lot of James supporters will go for Byrne after a brutal primary battle, and if you think the Alabama Education Association won't pull out all the stops to keep Byrne out of the Governor's Mansion, think again.) Depending on how the next few days go, I may have to reclassify his campaign as not just the state's best-run of the year but maybe its best-run in decades.

The power of positive thinking (or at least advertising): As solid as Bentley's campaign was, it got big assists from Byrne and James, who focused like lasers on each other with ad nauseum negative attacks. GOP and conservative independent voters turned off by the tone were left with two choices: the former judge who's still trying to make political hay out of his years-ago Ten Commandments battle, or the doctor who's running pleasant-sounding ads talking about job creation. A very conservative person who's close to me put it thusly earlier this week: "I think I'll vote for Bentley because he hasn't made me mad."

You can't always get what you want: But if you drop out of the governor's race and run for lieutenant governor instead, you at least can get nominated for something, right? Now Kay Ivey just has to hope that Jim Folsom, Jr., can't remember how to spell "PACT" in campaign ads. But something tells me he can. And will. Frequently.

Sometimes being tall is enough: Name one thing you know about Luther Strange besides the fact that he was a lobbyist and that he's roughly 27 feet tall. Here's a hint: He's also not Troy King, which was all it took for him to win the GOP nomination and become the overwhelming favorite in the attorney general's race in the fall. Our state's long nightmare of having an AG who voluntarily straps on a tracking device and who in his younger days publicly worried about the household arrangements of three men, an armadillo, and a houseplant are finally over. In Alabama, you take progress where you can get it.

And sometimes you just deserve to lose: Remember when U.S. Rep. Parker Griffith decided the Democratic Party had become just way too liberal for him, mere months after it spent an enormous sum to get him elected? And remember when the Republican establishment welcomed him with open arms and bragged about his party change as an omen of things to come in November for the Democrats? Yeah, see, it turns out that GOP voters don't like blatant political opportunism any better than Democratic ones. Enjoy the rest of your one and only term, Mr. Griffith. I'd suggest enjoying a cheeseburger at the congressional cafeteria before you go, but you'd probably just ditch it for a chicken sandwich in the middle of the meal anyway.