It was 1986. Ronald Reagan was halfway through his second term, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded before our eyes, and the Atlanta Hawks’ Spud Webb – who was only 5’7″ – won the NBA’s slam dunk contest.
That year, I finished the sixth grade and started the seventh. As a prepubescent smart aleck who was too immature to grasp anything of significance, I remember my classmates and I being annoyed that our substitute teacher ended PE early to have us watch the news coverage of the shuttle disaster. Despite my righteous indignation at having our four-square game interrupted, the world kept turning. That summer, as I waited anxiously to begin junior high school, political history was being being forged out of the discord within the all-powerful Democratic Party of Alabama.
Right about the time that school was starting, the mid-August AP headline, which must have been shocking to Alabamians who understood its significance, read: “Poll: Hunt as a chance.” Guy Hunt was the Republican Party’s candidate for governor, and at that time, running as a Republican in Alabama was pretty pointless. However,
A statewide survey indicates that the Democratic Party’s post-primary battle between Lt. Gov. Bill Baxley and Attorney General Charlie Graddick has given republican gubernatorial nominee Guy Hunt a shot at becoming Alabama’s first GOP governor this century.
Earlier that summer, the primary elections had been held. (Alabama’s gubernatorial elections occur on mid-term years, not during years when we choose a president.) In late June, The New York Times reported that Charlie Graddick had “won a razor-thin victory” in the Democratic primary, but Bill Baxley “would not concede and may demand a recount.” Of Graddick as a potential governor, the Times said this:
Mr. Graddick, 41 years old, a former Republican from Mobile who switched party allegiance 10 years ago, is a staunch conservative. His support Tuesday was described by political experts as nearly identical with the constituency of the suburban and rural, upper- and middle-income white voters who carried Alabama for President Reagan in 1984.
The article goes on to quote an Auburn University professor who said that the Baxley-Graddick primary was not at all a choice between two Democrats, and it has the state’s then-GOP chairman as saying that Alabama’s Republicans were “panicked that a liberal like Baxley might win.”
Baxley had been a mainstay of Alabama politics since the early 1970s. He had served as attorney general and was now a lieutenant governor trying to be governor. But his successor in the AG’s office stood in his way. In Alabama: History of a Deep South State, historian Wayne Flynt wrote:
Rallying blacks, unionists, and north Alabama farmers, Baxley locked in a photo-finish runoff with Attorney General Charles Graddick in the Democratic primary election. Although Graddick won by a few thousand votes, the supreme court threw out the results because Graddick had actively solicited Republicans to vote in the Democratic primary. In a state where citizens were not only unaccustomed to party primaries, but, in fact, did not know what they were, voters expressed their fury in the November election . . . (602)
It is called “crossover voting” when voters from one party cross over and cast ballots in the other party’s primary for the purpose of affecting which candidate will run in November. Whether organized or happenstance, it basically sabotages a party’s chance of running its best candidate. And it’s also against the rules. So Bill Baxley took it to court and challenged the results.
By early August, Baxley’s claim to victory in the Democratic primary was sealed by a three-judge panel who, the LA Times reported, “declared that Graddick violated federal election laws in his quest to succeed Alabama’s long-time political boss, Gov. George C. Wallace,” who had been elected again in 1982. The ruling said that the Dems either had to declare Baxley the winner or start the whole process over. They chose the former option. The story also explains that there were about 930,000 ballots cast in the Democratic primary, while Guy Hunt won the Republican primary, in which about 33,000 ballots were cast.
So, Guy Hunt should have had no chance to win Alabama’s top office. The ratio of Democratic voters to Republican voters in the primaries was 28-to-1. Moreover, the Democrats had controlled the state government for more than a hundred years, since the end of Reconstruction.
Yet, cracks in the dam were showing. As evidence of waning Democratic influence, a few more Republicans were coming into the state legislature by the 1970s. In the same section where he described the Baxley-Graddick election, Wayne Flynt also explained the Republican ascension of the 1980s:
In 1983 only three Republicans served in the senate and only eight in the house. By 1989, eight of thirty-five senators and 22 of 105 in the house represented the GOP.
By November 1986, the people of Alabama found out that Guy Hunt had more than a chance— he won, defying Southern history, state political realities, and any reasonable person’s expectations. Again, Wayne Flynt put it well: “Guy Hunt smashed Baxley with a vote of 696,000 to 539,000 to become the first Republican governor of Alabama since Reconstruction.” Just like Spud Webb, Hunt hung in there with the big boys and beat them at their own game.
The Baxley-Graddick scuffle has been cited as the reason that Guy Hunt broke through, but truthfully, Alabama’s politics had been changing since the 1940s. The pro-civil rights positions of Democratic president John Kennedy didn’t help, and the “Southern Strategy” of Richard Nixon urged Alabama to be a little redder.
This series of rumblings in the 1970s and 1980s set a trajectory. Though he was elected governor as Democrat in 1978, Fob James had been active in the Republican Party throughout the early and mid-1970s. That year, James beat . . . you guessed it, Guy Hunt. So even in 1978, the general election for governor was really a choice between two Republicans. And if Graddick had been granted his Democratic primary win in 1986, the choice that year would have been the same.
Since the election of 1986, Republicans have held the governor’s office for more years than the Democrats. Hunt was re-elected to a second term in 1990, but was convicted on ethics violation in 1993, so Democratic Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom, Jr. took over the brief remainder of his term. Fob James returned to office in ’95 as a full-on Republican, then Democrat Don Siegelman had his turn from 1999 to 2003. Since then, it’s been all red: Bob Riley from 2003 to 2011, and Robert Bentley is currently in his second term. Democrats Folsom and Siegelman had a combined six years, compared to Republicans Hunt, James, Riley, and Bentley who have (or will have) served for a total of twenty-six.
When al.com interviewed Charlie Graddick in 2014 for its series on pivotal moments in Alabama politics, Graddick said, “I’d like to say it was me, [ . . . ] But it was more the Democratic Party hierarchy. They shot themselves in the foot.” He also was quoted as saying this:
“That was a dark day for how things should be done in the election process,” Graddick said. “But it was a bright day in many other ways in that it created a healthy two-party system.”
For a while in the 1970s and 1980s, it looked like Alabama really might have a “healthy two-party system.” Sadly, that didn’t last long enough. That Republican trajectory continued and turned into the more of the same one-party dominance. Now a “red state,” Alabama has a Republican governor and lieutenant governor, a Republican super-majority in both houses of its legislature, and an all-Republican Supreme Court. Obviously, the state is polling heavy toward Donald Trump. That’s not exactly a “healthy two-party system.”
Although recent books like After Wallace by Jim Stovall and Daniel Cotter and The South’s New Racial Politics by Glenn Browder describe that period of transition, I have no recollection of it. I have vague memories of George Wallace being governor, of Emory Folmar’s unsuccessful run in 1982, and of the Baxley-Graddick hubbub, but I wasn’t old enough to understand what was going on back then. I am old enough, however, to remember the bad old days when Fob James acted like a monkey on TV and when Don Siegelman’s lottery efforts got stuffed. I was almost thirty when the last Democratic governor left office, and working from my adult political consciousness, that has meant that everything since Siegelman has been a living nightmare of stasis and mismanagement.
Oh, if a “liberal like Baxley” had’ve won . . .
- “Poll: Hunt has a chance.” AP. Anniston Star. August 14, 1986. Page 10A.
- “Results of Alabama Primary May Be Challenged.” William A. Schmidt. The New York Times. June 25, 1986.
“Judges Rule Crossover Vote Affected Governor’s Race : Alabama Primary Runoff Invalidated.” David Treadwell. Los Angeles Times. August 2, 1986.