Why Artur Davis lost in Alabama
By far the most stunning result in all the primaries so far this year was the overwhelming defeat of Rep. Artur Davis in Tuesday’s Democratic primary for Governor of Alabama. Davis, who was trying to become the state’s first African-American chief executive and once had a big lead in the polls, was overwhelmed by State Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks, 62 percent to 38 percent.
Davis is a smart, charming and independent-minded politician. From the beginning of his career, he had always run against his state’s African-American political establishment. In this race, he refused to court the state’s major African-American political organizations. It turned out that given the enormous role played by black voters in Alabama Democratic primaries, this hurt him badly.
Chuck Dean offered an excellent analysis in the Birmingham News:
Sparks beat Davis in 61 of the state's 67 counties. In Davis' 7th Congressional District, an expanse of 12 counties that runs from downtown Birmingham southwest to Tuscaloosa and then dips down to include nine of the state's Black Belt counties, Davis managed to win just two counties, Choctaw and Sumter. Even there, his victory was slim; Sparks pulled 48 percent of the vote in those counties.
In predominantly black counties such as Wilcox and Perry, Sparks got 70-plus percent of the vote. In Greene, Marengo, Lowndes and Hale counties, Sparks picked up 60-plus percent of the vote. In Pickens, Dallas and Macon counties, Sparks got 50-plus percent of the vote
Davis lost his home county, Jefferson, where Sparks racked up 58 percent of the vote. Davis won only a single majority black polling place in all of Jefferson County. He even lost his own polling place -- Southtown Housing Community Center -- by a handful of votes to Sparks.
For those interested, the News offered a link to the county results.
Davis made a classic political mistake: he was running to the center (or right) to court moderate and conservative white voters for the general election before he had secured his own party’s nomination. "And it is so clear now that Davis's gamble failed miserably," Glen Browder, a former congressman, told Dean.
Especially harmful was his decision to vote against President Obama’s health-care bill.
"It's stunning. It's absolutely amazing," Birmingham-Southern College political science professor Natalie Davis, one of the state’s premier political analysts, told the News. "You can't thumb your nose at your base, and that is what Artur did when he voted no on health care. Still, when you look at how Davis lost a race that was so much his to win, it's just staggering."
He was the only African-American in Congress to oppose the bill and said his vote was a matter of principle. But principled or not, the vote estranged him from his own party -- even from people sympathetic to him.
Davis was both definitive and gracious in conceding defeat. "I have no interest in running for political office again," Davis said. "The voters spoke in a very decisive way across every sector and in every section of the state. A candidate that fails across-the-board like that obviously needs to find something else productive to do with his life."
I hope Davis doesn’t give up on public life. While I disagreed with his health-care vote, I’m sorry that his voice will be missing in the next Congress. Brian Beutler had it right on Talking Points Memo in describing Davis as “a charismatic and well-qualified pol, once considered a rising star in the Democratic party.” He may not be a rising star now; he still has those other virtues.
But it’s worth pondering that in the first electoral contest in which a vote on the health-care bill played a central role, it was a vote against the bill that proved harmful. Perhaps this tells us little about how the issue will play in this fall’s elections, which will obviously have a dynamic different from that of a Democratic primary. Nonetheless, I have a hunch that few Democrats who voted for the bill will be hurt by the stand they took. We know there’s intensity against the health-care reform among Republicans and conservatives. There may be a matching intensity in favor of reform among Democrats and liberals.
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