What does the crowded field of GOP challengers mean for Alabama Governor Kay Ivey?
Eight Republican candidates are challenging Governor Kay Ivey for the party’s nomination this year, five more than in her first gubernatorial campaign in 2018.
Ivey won the primary four years ago without a runoff but now faces a new set of opponents. Some are longshots, but two air statewide television commercials and have over $1 million in campaign funds.
The stakes are high for the May 24 primary as the Republican candidate will be the clear favorite to win the general election in November.
It’s been almost five years since Ivey moved from lieutenant governor to governor when Robert Bentley stepped down just before impeachment hearings in April 2017.
Ivey has ranked near the top among the nation’s governors in favor polls, works well with Republican leaders who control the Legislature, and enjoys financial support from powerful state business lobby groups.
When asked how surprising it was that eight Republicans were trying to derail Ivey’s bid for a second term, Jess Brown, a retired political science professor at Athens State University, said Ivey has broad support, but not the kind of devoted following that would make her unbeatable.
“I always thought, even before she was governor, that Ivey’s support was breadth, but not depth,” Brown said in an email. “It’s a mile wide, but an inch deep. She is generally liked and accepted, but which group or faction of the electorate will walk on hot coals for her? On which question is it identified as a crusader?
“She reflects a politician who can be an effective drum major of the marching band, but who never really organizes the parade. A politician like this is a consensus builder, but he is usually one big mistake from political danger. This is not a criticism of Governor Ivey; the vast majority of governors probably fit this mold.
Still, Brown said Ivey was in a strong position to win another term despite the large player count.
“Overall, his political health is good to very good,” Brown said. “She won’t be an easy target and none of her current opponents are a household word. And, it looks like winning the GOP primary will come down to winning the gubernatorial election. The November election is not perhaps only a token affair in Alabama, one of the most Republican states in the Union.
Alabama has not elected a Democratic governor since Don Siegelman won in 1998.
The Republicans who qualified to run against Ivey are Lindy Blanchard, former Trump administration ambassador to Slovenia; Lew Burdette, president of King’s Home, a program for abused women and children; corrections officer and former Morgan County Commissioner Stacy Lee George; toll bridge developer Tim James; Opelika Pastor Dean Odle; Springville Mayor and former State Representative Dave Thomas; Dean Young, Orange Beach businessman and former congressional candidate, and Donald Trent Jones.
Angi Horn, a Republican political consultant, said while the field is wide, some won’t be able to raise enough money to compete.
“Statewide campaigns are expensive,” Horn said. “They need a lot of multimedia — television, radio, social media. And because of that, anyone who can’t get multi-million dollars won’t be able to launch a really credible campaign at this point.
According to the latest campaign finance reports, which cover January, Blanchard has $5.4 million in campaign funds. Ivey has $2 million and James has $1.2 million. Young has $500,000. None of the others have more than $40,000.
Horn said a problem for Ivey’s challengers is that there are no glaring weaknesses in his record that open up a clear line of attack.
“Governor. Ivey doesn’t have a lot of tragedy in his administration in terms of mistakes,” Horn said. “Unemployment is high, the economy is doing well, infrastructure is improving.
“Are there people who have issues with specific things she has done in her administration? Absoutely. But compared to previous governors, this is a fairly successful administration.
Steve Flowers, author, political commentator and former state legislator, said at this point it’s difficult to identify an issue that could lead an opponent to a victory over Ivey.
“I don’t think there’s a problem there that’s going to beat her,” Flowers said. “I think she’s seen as a popular starter or at least a stable starter. I don’t know if it arouses much excitement. But they consider her competent.
In the 2018 primary, Ivey defeated Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, Birmingham evangelist Scott Dawson and former state senator Bill Hightower of Mobile. Ivey got 56% of the vote to avoid a runoff. Battle ran second at 25%.
While Ivey has more challengers this year, Flowers said at this point he doesn’t think any are as formidable as Battle.
“I think the only way for her to lose is to fight,” Flowers said. “If she does something, a huge misstep. She drops out of a scene or says something off that makes her incoherent or something.
“If I was advising her campaign, I wouldn’t have her running around the state campaigning. I would have her sit in Montgomery and govern and look like a governor.
Ivey avoided debate during the 2018 primary and general election campaign, a policy that opponents say was a disservice to voters but apparently did him no harm on Election Day.
Flowers said one of the governor’s concerns is that having nine names on the ballot could split the vote enough to result in a runoff, which happens if no candidate tops 50%.
“I think a lot of what you might call candidates who are also candidates, that might add up and that might put her in a runoff,” Flowers said. “I would always bet, if you made me bet, she wins without a runoff.”
Flowers said the candidates to watch are Blanchard and James because they have enough money to reach voters through television and other advertising. Flowers said the level of threat they pose to Ivey will become clearer in a few weeks when he expects to see independent polls to show whether their ads are reaching audiences.
Flowers said U.S. Senate candidate Mike Durant, the former “Black Hawk Down” Army helicopter pilot and political newcomer, is an example of a candidate whose TV ads appear to be working, based on his growing numbers in the polls.
Brown said it remains to be seen if Blanchard and James can deliver a message that resonates with voters in their effort to oust Ivey.
“To date, however, in my opinion, no one has really challenged her effectively for two reasons,” Brown said. “Either not enough money and/or run against her with a bland, low-risk message. She may have two opponents in the May primary who will have money and don’t seem shy in terms of messaging. Maybe 2022 won’t be a repeat of 2018.”
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Brown said it was important to remember those results in 2018 when trying to gauge Ivey’s strength as a starter. That includes his decisive victory over Democratic candidate Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox, who ran a strong campaign.
“Four years ago, with three credible main opponents, she got 56 percent of the vote and won the GOP nomination without a runoff,” Brown said. “In November of that year, she faced off against probably the most effective Democratic candidate for governor of Alabama in many years (Maddox). She got 59%!
Horn said it’s not yet clear whether any of the challengers pose a major risk to Ivey, but that could change.
“It will depend on their fundraising, it will depend on their base, it will depend on their campaign,” Horn said. “But I think it’s his race to lose. I think outside of any big missteps by then, it’s going to be very tough to beat Kay Ivey.