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Kay Ivey on course for longest consecutive tenure as Alabama’s governor

Career politicians might look like soft targets in campaign ads, but Gov. Kay Ivey’s opponents failed to derail the veteran office-holder in her bid to become the longest consecutive-serving governor in Alabama history.

Ivey dispatched eight challengers for the Republican nomination on Tuesday, capturing 54 percent of the vote, almost three times the total for second-place Lindy Blanchard.

Blanchard and Tim James spent a combined $15 million on the campaign, much of that on ads attacking Ivey. But they fell short of their goal of forcing a runoff with the governor, who will now be a heavy favorite to win the general election in November.

David Hughes, an assistant professor of political science at Auburn University at Montgomery, said Ivey’s win fits a pattern seen in some other states, including Georgia, where Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger fended off Republican challengers backed by Donald Trump.

“You might say that 2022 is shaping up to be the year of the ‘revenge of the establishment,’” Hughes said in an email. “In Republican primaries now in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and elsewhere, establishment candidates are once again flexing their muscles and out-performing poll-numbers. Ivey is no exception.

“Put simply, over the past several years, Kay Ivey has proven herself to be one of the more skilled politicians in Alabama history. She managed to best co-partisans who attempted to out-flank her to the right this year and is now on a glide-path to becoming the longest continually serving governor in Alabama history.”

Ivey replaced Robert Bentley as governor in April 2017 and was elected to a full term the next year. If she wins in November and completes her second term, she will have served as governor just a few months shy of 10 straight years when she leaves office in January 2027. Governors cannot serve three straight terms.

George C. Wallace is Alabama’s longest serving governor. Wallace was elected in 1962, 1970, 1974, and 1982 and served a total of 16 years. But he never served more than eight consecutive years.

The state constitution prohibited governors from serving consecutive terms until 1968. That’s why Lurleen Wallace ran and was elected in her husband’s place in 1966.

Hughes called Ivey’s longevity a remarkable transformation for a politician who faced a difficult time in her first elected office as state treasurer as the overseer of the once-popular Prepaid Affordable College Tuition program, which almost collapsed on Ivey’s watch because of stock market declines and rising tuition costs. Ivey followed her two terms as state treasurer by winning the race for lieutenant governor in 2010. But that office has little power other than overseeing the debate in the state Senate.

“This is a remarkable transformation when you consider Ivey’s earlier career first as a Democrat, then as an embattled State Treasurer overseeing the demise of the popular PACT scholarship program, then as a lieutenant governor in a political system that affords that position exceptionally little notoriety,” Hughes said.

Marissa Grayson, associate professor of political science at Samford University, identified several reasons Ivey was able to defeat eight candidates without a runoff despite a heavy dose of negative TV ads by her two most well funded opponents, Blanchard and James.

For starters, Ivey was popular from the outset of the race, Grayson said.

“The polling numbers for her before the race even began were really good,” Grayson said. “So overall, people were pleased with her performance and she had the support from the lieutenant governor (Will Ainsworth) who is very popular.”

Grayson said Ivey effectively blamed problems that could cause discontent among voters, such as gas prices and inflation, on the Biden administration. Grayson said Ivey contrasted that with her record on economic growth. Ivey has consistently touted the number of jobs created during her term and the record low unemployment rate.

Another factor is that Grayson said Ivey’s two main opponents, Blanchard and James, were flawed candidates. Blanchard was ambassador to Slovenia in the Trump administration but did not receive an endorsement from the former president. James is a businessman who is the son of two-time Gov. Fob James.

“One is they were missing name recognition,” Grayson said. “Sure, Tim James’ father was a politician. Lindy Blanchard had worked in the Trump administration. But it’s not like he endorsed her or anything.”

Grayson said Ivey responded effectively to the efforts by Blanchard and James to attack her from the right. The governor’s well-funded campaign, backed by the state’s main business lobbying groups, spent $9 million.

“Really the only way they went after her was to try to describe themselves as more socially conservative than her,” Grayson said. “And she pivoted. She ran ads about banning transgendered athletes and ran ads about the border and didn’t leave Tim James or Lindy Blanchard much room to claim that they were more socially conservative than her.”

Grayson said she does not necessarily see Ivey’s win as part of a pattern of resurgence by establishment candidates versus candidates who label themselves as outsiders. Instead, she sees it as the failure of Blanchard and James to energize voters enough to challenge a well-liked governor.

“In this example of the governor’s race it was more a popular incumbent running against people who weren’t well known,” Grayson said. “They both didn’t have a record and didn’t have the entertainment value or the charisma to win people over and mobilize them to go vote.

“A lot of those non-establishment candidates are either celebrity or have a way of entertaining or mobilizing people and there really wasn’t that in the race against her.”

Grayson said the prospect of Ivey becoming Alabama’s longest consecutive serving governor is remarkable for several reasons.

“It’s really impressive, especially as a woman and especially at her age,” Grayson said. “And also seeing some of the changes that happened in the last decade within the Republican as far as the Tea Party movement, some of the factions within the party. The fact that she’s been able to serve or presumably will be able to serve through all those years really is impressive.”

Alabama political consultant David Mowery said it is not easy to devise a campaign strategy that works against a governor people know and like as much as Ivey.

“I think that the people that were challenging her had a fundamental misread of the electorate,” Mowery said. “They thought that the electorate was angry and that the electorate wanted to punish incumbents. And while that may be true in some places, it’s not true when it comes to Gov. Ivey.”

Ivey’s potential longevity in the state’s top office is noteworthy, in part, because few people would have seen that coming back when Ivey was treasurer and lieutenant governor, Mowery said. But that changed when Bentley resigned from office because of scandal and Ivey rose to the occasion as his replacement, Mowery said.

“I think one thing is you have to go back to the fact that she does a pretty good job and she doesn’t start undue controversies,” Mowery said. “And she doesn’t walk around poking people in the eye with a stick. She’s just pretty even keeled. And while some people might want her to froth at the mouth more, and some people might want her to be sort of less in thrall to big business, in the end the majority of voters in our state like what they’re getting.”

Mowery said he did not think voters generally bought the messages of Blanchard and James that they were outsiders, partly because of their own well-funded campaigns and backgrounds.

“Blanchard was an ambassador and Tim James’ dad was the governor,” Mowery said. “And I just think that you can’t pull the wool over enough people if you’re not authentic. And the one thing about Gov. Ivey is she’s always been pretty clear about what you see is what you get. She is that person.”

Political commentator, and former state lawmaker Steve Flowers said he had written in his column for months that he thought Ivey would win without a runoff. But Flowers said polling he saw in the final days of the campaign indicated to him that it would be a close call, that Ivey might barely make it over the 50 percent mark. Flowers said he believes crossover votes from white Democrats aiming to have some say in the election might have helped push Ivey up to the 54 percent mark. He said Republicans did the same thing to exert some influence during the decades when the Democratic party dominated Alabama politics.

Overall, Flowers said Ivey’s win over the eight-candidate field without a runoff was a remarkable feat considering the amount of money spent trying to defeat her. He said her win in the 2018 Republican primary against a field that included Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle was impressive, too.

“I think she ran a flawless campaign,” Flowers said. “I thought her ads were very, very good.

“I said in my column and I’ll say it again the only way she would have lost that race is if she had a mistake or a misstep or fallen off the stage or something like that. Some dramatic miscue. She would have to beat herself. But she not only did not beat herself, she ran a doggone beautiful media campaign.”

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