AL-Governor: Did the Voting Rights Act Doom Artur Davis?

Everyone is trying to figure out today how Artur Davis lost so badly yesterday in the Democratic primary for governor of Alabama. Could the explanation be the same civil rights law that has vastly expanded opportunities for Southern black politicians such as Davis?
by | June 3, 2010

Everyone is trying to figure out today how Artur Davis lost so badly yesterday. The Alabama Democratic congressman was pummeled in the primary for governor by state Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks. Davis had more campaign cash and was the more polished candidate. Polling gave him the edge. He lost by 24 points.

Here's a provocative explanation why: The same law that has helped blacks win lots of seats in the South in the U.S. House of Representatives makes it much more difficult for Davis and other black Southern congressmen to win statewide.

In a state where John McCain won 60% of the vote, Davis represents a congressional district where President Obama won 72% of the vote. The reason is the Voting Rights Act, which has required the creation of majority-minority districts in many places. Davis' district is more than 60% black.

If Davis were to perfectly represent his 7th District constituents, he'd be one of the most loyal Democrats and loyal supporters of President Obama in Congress. That profile, however, would probably make him unelectable statewide in Alabama. That's the dilemma Davis faced from the moment he thought about running for governor or any statewide office.

Davis tried a balancing act both before and during the campaign for governor. Others can describe his congressional voting record better than I can, but my sense (which Davis' ratings from various interest groups seem to confirm) is that in Congress Davis was a moderate Democrat, but not a conservative Democrat. He was a New Democrat, but not a Blue Dog. He sometimes angered Democratic activists, but he didn't position himself so far to the right that he ever risked losing his seat in a primary.

As he sought to be the Democratic nominee for governor, Davis seems to have concluded that his record wouldn't be good enough to win in Alabama. It wasn't good enough to be conservative for the 7th District. He had to be (fairly) conservative, period.

So, as the campaign for governor heated up, Davis opposed cap-and-trade and health care reform. He eschewed most standard Democratic causes and many prominent Alabama Democratic groups. In the end, though, his strategy failed miserably.

What lots of people are saying today is that Davis erred by running a general election strategy in the primary. Sparks won by supporting the same groups and causes that Davis ignored. Sparks did surprisingly well with black voters, who agreed with the Agriculture Commissioner on more of the issues. The conventional wisdom is that Davis should have waited to move right until the general election.

It's certainly true that Davis was running a general election campaign from the outset. But, I don't think you can really say he erred. Danny at Doc's Political Parlor makes an excellent point: Davis was trying to be Alabama's next governor, not just win a primary. To have a chance in the general, he had to position himself to be acceptable to a majority of Alabama's voters. Candidates can shift their tone from a primary to a general. They usually can't get away with completely changing their views.

The real problem for Davis, I think, was that the general election strategy didn't get him anywhere. Alabama has lots of conservative Democrats, but Davis didn't succeed in winning them in the primary. What's more, polls still showed that Sparks was stronger than Davis against potential Republican foes. If Davis could have made the case that he was the only Democrat who could win the general election, key Democratic groups (like the Alabama Education Association) might have supported him, even if their hearts told them to go with Sparks. But, he couldn't. A key question is why.

Obviously, one explanation why Davis' shift didn't work is the color of his skin. Perhaps too many white Alabamians -- Democrats, Republicans and independents -- weren't willing to elect a black man as governor.

I can't say whether that's right or not, but I do think there's another plausible explanation: Davis' shift came across as insincere. Take health care reform. This is from a 2007 Birmingham News story (no link available):

U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, D-Birmingham, and state and local Democrats and union leaders blasted the Bush administration's continued commitment to Iraq on Monday, saying the money spent on the war could provide universal health care for all Americans.

...

Davis said he supports Sen. Barak [sic] Obama, D-Ill., in part because he backs universal health care. But he said he believes all Democratic presidential candidates are sympathetic to universal  health care and expects them to support it regardless who emerges as the party's presidential nominee.

Davis went from supporting the future president because of Obama's backing of universal health care to opposing the president's health care plan. Alabama voters could be forgiven for not buying that.

And, to me, that gets at a big part of why Davis lost. The gap between the positions he had to take in a 72% Obama district and the positions he had to take to win statewide in Alabama simply proved too large.

Due to the Voting Rights Act, most Southern states have districts like Davis'. Unless I'm mistaken, never once has a black Democrat representing one of these districts in the South won statewide office. Harold Ford came close in the 2006 Tennessee Senate race, but only after infuriating Democrats by supporting the Iraq War and a federal constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Whether it's Davis, Ford or Kendrick Meek in Florida, the difficult balancing act is the same.

The obvious question is whether black politicians and black voters would be better off if the Voting Rights Act were interpreted more loosely. If there were more 40% black districts and fewer 55% or 60% black districts, would the result be a class of black congressmen who were well-positioned to be elected governor and senator? Or would it simply mean that fewer blacks would be elected to the House in the first place? There is a reasonable case to be made that the VRA prevented Davis from being elected governor, but that without the VRA he never would have been a member of Congress from Alabama.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. You can enter an anonymous Display Name or connect to a social profile.

More from Politics