Bradley Byrne made his announcement for governor looking down Dexter Avenue at the AEA building and attacking Dr. Hubbert’s omnipotent control of Alabama government. He threw down the gauntlet and declared that the dethroning of King Hubbert would be the hallmark of his tenure as governor. This was like waving a red flag in front of a raging bull.
Most people assumed that Hubbert would simply ignore Byrne’s rhetoric and continue to bestow his political action committee largesse onto the legislative battles. However, Byrne’s bold attack on Hubbert and his herd of teachers angered the king. He figured a governor could be allowed to play in his sandbox because after all that person is the governor, but Hubbert was not about to allow someone to kick sand on him in his own sandbox.
Hubbert created a conduit PAC to funnel AEA money to pummel Byrne with attack ads. Hubbert not only spent a ton of money to derail Byrne, the ads were well designed and effective. They created havoc for Byrne and ultimately destroyed him.
Byrne assumed that Tim James was his competition so he began attacking James with negative ads and James hit back. Byrne was getting hit from two sides. In the meantime, the mild mannered, kindly Dr. Bentley was smiling and remaining positive with his campaign. Bentley’s simple and positive television ads saying, “Alabama is hurting and we need a doctor,” resonated with voters even if he did not have the resources to run the ads as often as James and Byrne played their negative spots. However, what hit home more than any message in the entire campaign was Bentley humbly and sincerely looking into the camera and saying to Alabamians that if elected he would not take a salary as governor. These two ads were as effective as any in Alabama political history.
Polls had shown Bentley as the most likeable candidate in the race. His Achilles heel was that voters did not think he could win. He had shown an incremental upward momentum the entire campaign. However, in the last two weeks he caught fire as Byrne and James continued attacking each other. The fallout created by Byrne and James negative campaigns was that voters did not accrue to either of the aggressors. Instead, every vote they peeled off of each other with negative ads went to the good Dr. Bentley.
When the votes were counted from the June 1 GOP primary, Bradley Byrne led with 28% and Dr. Bentley and Tim James were in a dead heat with 25% each. Roy Moore finished fourth with 18%. After a recount to determine who finished second between James and Bentley, the good doctor prevailed by 166 votes. Therefore, the runoff was set between Bradley Byrne and Robert Bentley.
A cursory look at the polling data could portend an obvious Bentley victory. Both James’ and Moore’s voters overwhelmingly favored Bentley. AEA continued to hammer Byrne in the runoff, which allowed Bentley to stay positive. He simply smiled and continued to run his no salary ad while AEA did the dirty work.
Bentley won easily in the July 13 runoff. He had emerged as the GOP nominee with two amazing anomalies. He spent $1.8 million compared to Bradley Byrnes $7 million, which is an amazing 4 to 1 advantage overcome by the underdog. In addition, Bentley ran an entire campaign with no negative ads.
As Bentley entered the fall fray against his Democratic opponent Ron Sparks, he had the lowest negative ratings of any candidate in recent history. Very few people disliked the doctor from Tuscaloosa. Therefore, he was the odds on favorite to win the governor’s race on November 2.
There were no surprises in the general election campaign. The Republican establishment embraced Dr. Bentley and bestowed their financial support on their GOP standard bearer. He was able to outspend his Democratic foe, Ron Sparks, by a 4 to 1 advantage. Dr. Bentley’s 58% to 42% victory over Ron Sparks appeared easy. It was made even easier by the Republican tidal wave that swept Republicans into every state office. Bentley would have won regardless, but the Republican tsunami made it a landslide. Dr. Bentley would become Alabama’s 53rd Governor.
See you next week.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in 72 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.