Davis Savors Special Election Wins as He Ponders Future

Davis Savors Special Election Wins as He Ponders Future

Posted May 21, 2008 at 4:59pm

Back-to-back victories by Democrats in the recent Louisiana and Mississippi special House elections have bolstered the party’s expectations for the South in 2008. But the wins have also given Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) an even greater nudge to consider a statewide race in 2010.

“I’m very much encouraged by what I’ve seen,” Davis said, enthusing over now-Rep. Travis Childers’ (D-Miss.) 8-point win in a previously Republican-held seat. “What the Childers win says to me is that the Republican hold is eroding in the South.”

Davis, 40, has flirted with running statewide in the Cotton State since he ousted a long-serving incumbent in a contentious Democratic primary in 2002. A strong Democratic showing in the South this cycle could pave the way for Davis, who is black, to run for governor in 2010, when incumbent Gov. Bob Riley (R) is term limited.

Davis has also been mentioned as a possible candidate for Senate, but he does not envision that happening anytime soon.

“I have no interest in running against any Republican incumbent in Alabama,” he said, dismissing a 2010 Senate bid against Sen. Richard Shelby (R). “Open seats are the key.”

Davis is co-chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue” program, which is charged with winning Republican-held seats, and he played a role in helping both Childers and Rep. Don Cazayoux (D), who won the special election in Louisiana earlier this month.

But Davis has also been active on the home front. He was instrumental in recruiting Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright (D) to run for the open seat in Alabama’s 2nd district, which has been held by retiring Rep. Terry Everett (R) since 1992. He also endorsed state Sen. Parker Griffith (D) for the 5th district seat held by retiring Rep. Bud Cramer (D) in a district that voted overwhelmingly for President Bush in 2000 and 2004. Both candidates are running as anti-abortion-rights and pro-gun conservatives, which Davis said is key to winning either district.

By crossing the state from Montgomery to Huntsville to campaign for the conservative Democratic candidates, and serving as Alabama co-chairman for presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the Congressman has broadened his base of support and reached out to the white voters who he would need to win over in any statewide race.

“[Davis] has built an organization that will perform,” said Natalie Davis, a pollster and political science professor at Birmingham-Southern College — and a Davis supporter. “Little by little, he’s touched across the board.”

Power of the Purse

Davis’ political action committee has collected more than $1.1 million this cycle, and he has used that money to help Democratic colleagues in swing districts outside Alabama such as Reps. Melissa Bean (Ill.), Bruce Braley (Iowa), Tim Mahoney (Fla.) and Heath Shuler (N.C.).

Obama won Alabama’s February primary with a comfortable 57 percent, earning 78 percent of the African-American vote but just 29 percent of the white vote. In a state with a population that is 70 percent white, a statewide candidate in a general election would have to garner at least 40 percent of that voting bloc, said Natalie Davis — who is no relation to the Congressman.

“I know where Artur’s head is with all this, and if all the dominoes fall in line, he thinks he can be the next governor,” she said. “I’m not so convinced yet.”

Some of that caution undoubtedly comes from watching the bruising 2006 Senate race in Tennessee between Bob Corker (R) and then-Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D), who lost his attempt to become the first African-American elected to the Senate from the South since Reconstruction. In that race, whites broke for Corker 59 percent to 40 percent, and Corker won the election by 3 points.

“Race is a factor in any race,” Ford said. “But I’ve run statewide, and I can tell you [party] identification is the biggest issue in the South, and these special election outcomes are a good sign.”

Alabama is a conservative state that twice voted for President Bush. Republicans routinely win federal elections, though Democrats have had better success in races for state offices, and they still control both chambers of the Legislature. To win statewide, Davis would have to court conservative voters, something Alabama Republican Party spokesman Philip Bryan said is unlikely.

“He’s done a good job going around the state building name recognition, but he’s viewed here as a Washington liberal elitist and not a man of the people,” Bryan said. “He’s aligned with [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi [D-Calif.], and that won’t work here.”

In a bold move for both Democrats, Davis hosted Pelosi in his district earlier this month — the Speaker’s first-ever official visit south of Atlanta. She was the keynote speaker at the Alabama Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson dinner and attended fundraisers for both the DCCC and the Alabama Democratic Party.

“I was glad to have her in the Deep South, where she’s never been,” Davis said with a smile. “I’m honored to have her support.”

With Obama’s near hold on the Democratic presidential nomination this year and Ford’s narrow Senate loss in 2006, a black candidate running in the South needs to focus more on the campaign, than race, to win, he said.

“I don’t think Mr. Ford lost because of his race,” Davis said. “He lost [because] he was outspent three and a half to one, and because he didn’t push back against Mr. Corker hard enough.”

A Liberal in Alabama

With a voting record that places him in the moderate wing of his party — although he remains the most liberal Member of the Alabama delegation — Davis said he could defuse likely claims from Republicans that he is a liberal, Pelosi rubber stamp with degrees from Harvard University, a school that doesn’t have a nationally ranked football team — a sticking point in a state where the rivalry between Democrats and Republicans is only overshadowed by that of Auburn and Alabama fans.

“The biggest mistake would be if we use our majority to shift the party to the left, which would hurt Democrats in the South,” Davis said, ticking off gun rights and gays in the military as issues for his party to avoid. “You’ve still got to run as a conservative Democrat to win a majority of the white vote.”

Running as a pro-gun, abortion-rights opponent, Bright is heeding Davis’ advice in the 2nd district, which voted overwhelmingly for Riley in 2006 and has had a Republican Congressman since 1964. Bright, who was elected mayor in a nonpartisan citywide election, considered running for the House seat as a Republican before declaring his bid as a Democrat.

“Republicans have been the only ones to paint themselves as conservative. But I’m a conservative, and I’m running as a Democrat,” said Bright, who still has to clear a June 3 Democratic primary against a more liberal opponent.

Running as an Outsider

Democrats in the Legislature have been in a showdown this year with Riley, who handed down an outright ban on legislators who serve as employees at two-year colleges. This move followed reports that the Alabama Education Association was using the “double dipping” tactic to influence state lawmakers with patronage positions. Two current legislators were indicted following federal and state investigations of the state’s two-year college system.

In a 2010 gubernatorial race, Davis could face popular Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr. in the Democratic primary. Folsom stepped in as governor in 1993 following the conviction of then-Gov. Guy Hunt (D). But with Folsom’s undisputed ties to Mobile politics, the turmoil in the state Capitol could play in Davis’ favor, Huntsville-based Democratic consultant Joey Ceci said.

“People aren’t happy with government anywhere, but if you see what’s happening in Montgomery, it’s a disgrace,” Ceci said.

Because he was one of the first Members of Congress to endorse Obama, a fellow Harvard Law School alumnus, Davis’ name has been floated as a possible Cabinet member in an Obama administration if the Illinois Senator is elected to the White House. If Shelby opts to retire in 2010 after serving four terms — considered unlikely given his bulging campaign war chest — Davis could make a statewide bid for Senate rather than governor.

Bright said Davis, who he first met in 2000, has not talked to him about a gubernatorial bid, but the three-term mayor expounded on the historic nature of such a race.

“To me, I wish he’d run for president,” Bright said. “Next to his mom, I’m his No. 1 cheerleader.”