By Steve Flowers
There is a proven theory espoused by political scholars that has prevailed in southern political history for decades. The premier political scholar, Dr. V. O. Key, first illustrated this repetitious theme that has weaved its way through the southern electorate. He called it “Friends and Neighbors” politics. It is not a complicated hypothesis. It simply means that southerners tend to vote for someone from their neck of the woods. It is a truism in all southern states. However, it is most pronounced in the Heart of Dixie.
This friends and neighbors vote comes to light in open races for governor and U.S. senator. Folks in Alabama will consistently vote for someone from their county or surrounding counties or region of the state overwhelmingly.
I tell my university southern politics students that this tendency is so pervasive and tenacious that Alabama voters will vote for someone from their neck of the woods even if they know he is a crook or a drunk. They are probably thinking, “I know ole Joe is a crook and a drunk, but by gosh he’s our drunk or crook.”
The earliest and best illustration of Alabama’s “Friends and Neighbors” occurred in the 1946 governor’s race. Big Jim Folsom was born and raised in Coffee County in the wiregrass area of the state. At about age 30, he moved to Cullman, sold insurance, and worked for the WPA getting lots of folks jobs. In that 1946 race, he ran against the Probate Judge of Calhoun County. Big Jim beat Judge Boozer because he had two home regions. He ran overwhelmingly in both the Wiregrass and North Central Alabama.
On election night in 2010, I was sitting on the set of a Montgomery television station doing election commentary and analysis. As I perused and studied the county-by-county returns, I broke into a smile that bordered on a laugh. When I saw what was happening, it was obvious that friends and neighbors politics still persists in Alabama.
Dr. Robert Bentley was carrying Tuscaloosa and the surrounding counties of Fayette, Lamar, Pickens and Bibb so overwhelmingly that I saw that the hometown vote was going to propel him past Tim James and Bradley Byrne and into the governor’s office.
He ran like a scalded dog through Tuscaloosa where he had been a popular medical doctor for 30 years and there are a good many votes in Tuscaloosa. Bentley won because of “Friends and Neighbors” politics.
How will “Friends and Neighbors” play out to the advantage of the potential candidates for this year’s open U.S. senate race and next year’s open governor’s race?
It is early and all the horses are not in the race yet for governor. If Kay Ivey runs, she’s been around Montgomery so long that she is thought of as a professional politician who has camped out in the Capitol City for decades. There are so few Republican votes in her native Wilcox County that she can’t reap any hometown advantage.
Just the opposite for Huntsville mayor, Tommy Battle. He is well known and liked in the Rocket City. If he is the only major candidate from the Tennessee Valley and it’s a large field, that North Alabama vote might land him in the runoff.
Mobile and Baldwin counties have a long history of supporting one of their own. There are a lot of votes down there. Agriculture Commissioner John McMillan has been around Montgomery for a while, but he has deep roots in Baldwin County, which is now one of the most populous Republican counties in the state.
What about the current ongoing open U.S. Senate race: The two frontrunners, Roy Moore and Luther Strange, are thought of as statewide candidates. Although Moore will carry Etowah and Strange will carry Mountain Brook, this race illustrates and reflects more of a class ideological struggle that is playing out in the national as well as state Republican Party. It’s the evangelical Christian / Donald Trump / George Wallace voter versus the Wall Street business big mules.
Moore believes he can out religious anyone. It is Moses with the Hebrew children of North Alabama versus the Philistine Mountain Brook giant. The two tribes in the Republican Party will collide with the battlefield being around the Black Warrior River.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.