Alabama: Davis (D) Faces Hurdles Today In Bid For History; Crowded GOP Field : It's All Politics Today's gubernatorial primary in Alabama features a Democratic black congressman who is at odds with many civil rights organizations in his state, and a Republican whose "English only" ad has gone viral.
NPR logo Alabama: Davis (D) Faces Hurdles Today In Bid For History; Crowded GOP Field

Alabama: Davis (D) Faces Hurdles Today In Bid For History; Crowded GOP Field

Artur Davis, elected to Alabama's 7th Congressional District in 2002, is giving up his House seat to run for governor. Dave Martin/AP hide caption

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Dave Martin/AP

An English-only ad by James (R) has gone viral; Davis (D) is taking on his state's black political establishment. hide caption

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The 1970 gubernatorial candidacy of Dr. John Cashin was more symbolic than anything else.  George Wallace, just off a sucessful race-based campaign in the Democratic primary runoff, was a shoo-in to return to office after an absence of four years.  There was no Republican on the ballot, not that it would have mattered; the Alabama GOP was not a threat to win anything statewide back in 1970, certainly not against Wallace.

Cashin, an African-American, was the candidate of the National Democratic Party of Alabama (NDPA), a multi-racial organization born out of the 1964 Democratic national convention.  With no money or organization, Cashin received nearly 15 percent of the vote in the general election.  The goal was less about winning and more about sending a message.  But if the 15 percent was supposed to be a message, no one in the state heard it.

Forty years later, another black candidate is seeking the governorship of Alabama.  It is an era that would have been totally unrecognizable back in 1970.  But there are some similarities as well.

Artur Davis, elected to Alabama's 7th Congressional District in 2002, is giving up his House seat to run for governor in today's Democratic primary.  From the outset of his political career, Davis has made it clear his approach would be that of a centrist.  CQ's Politics In America notes, for example, that he supports a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage and in 2007 he voted against a bill to prohibit workplace discrimination against gays.  He was one of 63 Democrats to vote for a ban on "partial birth" abortion.  He supported a renewal of the Patriot Act.  He was also among the 27 House Democrats who voted to allow oil and gas drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

He also voted against the health care bill last fall -- the only black lawmaker to do so -- given a pass to do so, apparently, by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, aware that voting otherwise could hurt his statewide ambitions in conservative Alabama.  But his "no" vote was wildly unpopular in his 7th CD, comprising parts of Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, which is majority-black and lined with pockets of poverty.  The Rev. Jesse Jackson is quoted as saying this about Davis: "You can't vote against health care and call yourself a black man."  Many voters see Davis' vote as one of pure politics.

Davis' opponent in the primary, state Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks, has been reminding voters how the congressman voted and promising, "I won't ever, ever turn my back on you."

Davis is also facing the open opposition from many of the state's longtime civil rights leaders, including Joe Reed, chairman of the Alabama Democratic Conference, who has endorsed Sparks.  Sparks is white.

A big part of this division is generational.  Many of the old-line black leaders feel Davis is "impatient" and hasn't "earned" the right to become the state's first African-American governor.  They also resent the fact that Davis has, in their eyes, decided to seek out white support before nailing down the backing from the black leadership.  (Click here to read Joe Reed's explanation for why his group chose not to endorse Davis.)  Reed and others have flatly said that Davis can't win the general election.

That may be true, but that may be true of Sparks as well.  President Obama is widely unpopular in Alabama, giving the GOP hope that they will keep the governorship that incumbent Republican Bob Riley is giving up because of term limits.

Another part of their opposition goes back to 2002, when Davis ousted Rep. Earl Hilliard, the state's first African-American congressman.  Hilliard was a controversial figure with an assortment of ethics problems over his finances and foreign trips.  But Jews also saw him as anti-Israel, and Davis was the beneficiary of support from national pro-Israeli groups.

Davis was also an early supporter of Obama's presidential candidacy, at a time when most blacks in the state had lined up behind Hillary Clinton.

For the record, Davis has his share of black support, including endorsements from the mayors of Selma and Mobile, as well as Rep. John Lewis (D-GA).  It remains to be seen how much of a pull Joe Reed and those organizations still have.

Davis has long considered the frontrunner in the gov. primary and that may still be the case, but Sparks has narrowed the gap in the past month.

Republicans have their own issues as well.

Tim James, a businessman and the son of former two-term Gov. Fob James -- elected first as a Democrat (1978) and then as a Republican (1994) -- has received much attention over his ad railing against illegal immigration and calling for an "English only" driver's licence exam.  "This is Alabama.  We speak English.  If you want to live here, learn it," James says in the ad, which has since gone viral.

You can see the ad here:

The ad has given James national exposure but some think it is counterproductive; Alabama is home to many foreign businesses.  But with seven candidates in the race, it may help push him into what is expected to be a July 13 runoff, most likely with Bradley Byrne, a former state senator and ex-college chancellor backed by the same business groups that helped outgoing Gov. Riley win his two terms.

Byrne, who some polls show leading the GOP pack, has said the English-only ad "could tarnish Alabama's image around the world":

When you get up on television and do an ad that basically says if you don't speak English, you're not welcome in Alabama, guess what message you just sent to the folks we're trying to get to move here?

Also running are former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, best known for his unsuccessful attempt to display a Ten Commandments monument in a state building (and who was ousted from his post for his efforts), and state Rep. Robert Bentley.

There is little interest in the Senate race, where incumbent Republican Richard Shelby is widely seen as a shoo-in for a fifth term.

But there is considerable attention on the Republican primary in the 5th District.  Freshman Rep. Parker Griffith, elected as a Blue Dog Democrat in 2008, switched to the GOP last December.  But he has not been widely embraced in his new party back home, and faces a tough challenge today from Madison Co. Commissioner Mo Brooks, who is comparing Griffith to Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter, another party switcher whose decision to do so was not, shall we say, rewarded by voters.  Also running is restaurant owner Les Phillip.

For his part, Griffith has been endorsement by Alabama's four other GOP congressmen.  And look no further than Sen. Shelby to see how party switchers have fared in the state.  He became a Republican in November 1994, immediately after the GOP takeover of Congress, and twice won re-election by landslide margins.

Other states holding primaries today:  New Mexico, where Gov. Bill Richardson (D) is term-limited, and Mississippi.  Polls close in Alabama and Mississippi at 8 p.m. ET, and in New Mexico at 9 p.m. ET.