MOBILE, Alabama — Rather than serving as any sort of national harbinger, the Republican primary election results in Alabama this week taught old-fashioned political lessons. Chief among them is that hard work, energy, and grassroots organizing still carry the day.
Another lesson, as noted in these pages by James Sweet, is that attention to local issues still matters. So does basic likability. Finally, despite the Trumpian trend toward slash-and-burn politics, there’s something to be said for ending a campaign, Reagan-like, on a positive note. On all four fronts, first-time candidate Katie Britt excelled, which is why she finished 16 points ahead of the runner-up when the polling averages had her up by just 6.
What didn’t matter much in Alabama was former President Donald Trump himself. Unlike in neighboring Georgia, Trump played only a minor role here. While he didn’t endorse in the race for governor, he had repeatedly blasted incumbent Gov. Kay Ivey for insufficient fealty to him. But against two quite well-funded opponents, Ivey won without even a runoff.
In the Senate race, Trump began by endorsing U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks while trashing Britt (before he later met and reportedly liked her and her husband). Nonetheless, Britt rose from 2% in the polls to a lead, while Brooks dropped from 60% in one poll all the way to 12%. Later, almost immediately after Trump publicly un-endorsed Brooks, Brooks began to rise from the political dead. He moved back past military veteran Mike Durant for a spot in the runoff. In other words, every time Trump weighed in, polls moved in the other direction from his preferences. It wasn’t a backlash against him — just a sign that his blatherings were almost immaterial.
Since Trump didn’t matter, let’s look at what did.
On energy and grassroots organizing, Britt outworked her opponents by miles — quite literally hundreds of them, in terms of how often she personally crisscrossed the state — all with what I described three weeks ago as “an almost dizzying energy and … intensity.” And she worked hard to secure support from most existing grassroots power players in the state, including associations representing farmers, foresters, retailers, builders, restaurateurs, and law enforcement. Her volunteer network was immense.
On local issues, Britt was prepared to talk specifics everywhere she went. This was in stark contrast to Brooks, who repeatedly told local groups (in some cases correctly) that the federal government should not be concerned with topics they raised. Brooks was still doing so in the last days of the primary campaign, insisting that the state by itself, not the federal government, should be fully responsible for a new Interstate-10 bridge over the Mobile River. His attitude wasn’t popular among southern Alabamans who noted that it is, after all, a federal interstate highway and that the current tunnels under the river are a major choke point both for hurricane evacuation and for everyone from Baton Rouge and New Orleans for whom I-10 is their thoroughfare to Florida beaches and Disneyworld. Indeed, Britt trounced Brooks in the two populous southern counties.
On likability, it helps that Britt has a megawatt smile and a propensity to let it show, while Brooks and Durant each had the mien of, oh, perhaps IRS auditors looking for scalps.
Finally, Britt’s campaign accurately sensed that voters are sick of smears. As Durant and Brooks flooded the final-week airwaves with harshly negative ads, Britt ended with a 100% positive, upbeat spot.
Judging from the results that make her a heavy favorite entering the runoff, it worked like a charm.