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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.

By E.J. Dionne  | June 3, 2010; 10:08 AM ET
Categories:  Dionne  | Tags:  E.J. Dionne  
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Comments

Your article is spot on, Mr Dionne. You cannot ever run against your base, thumbing your nose at those who got you there in the first place. His health care vote was a colossal mistake, and running to the right to appeal to conservatives was imbecilic in a Democratic primary. He truly deserves to be on the political sidelines in the future.

Posted by: c_attucks | June 3, 2010 10:31 AM | Report abuse

Monday morning Q-backs are always taking. What if Davis had voted for Health Care then lost in Nov ( As Sparks will probably lose) then the Kibitzers would be saying Davis lost the general because he voted for the Obama Agenda. Sometimes there are not good alternatives so I hope his vote was because he believed it.
Mr Obama decision to add health care while already running a 1.6 trillion dollar deficit will probably cost him the 2012 election. Is Mr Davis so wrong to oppose it? After all Davis is still a young Guy and will presumably be back running for something.

Posted by: devluddite | June 3, 2010 1:14 PM | Report abuse

It looks look Davis was reading the all the right wing stuff thinking he could win.

There's a saying, ignore the base at your own peril and he miscalculated. Pure and simple.

Posted by: beeker25 | June 3, 2010 1:58 PM | Report abuse

Dionne wrote: But it’s worth pondering that in the first electoral contest in which a vote on the health-care bill played a central role,

Dionne lies to make his point as Alan Mollohan was defeated in the Democratic WVa primary on May 11. But don't start letting facts get in the way of your opinion, EJ, as you've never let facts matter before.

Posted by: alvint | June 4, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse

As WaPo poster alvint notes above, Mr. Dionne, again, has his facts wrong. On May 11th, Alan Mollohan LOST the Dem primary in West Virginia and he voted FOR the HC Bill. Mr. Dionne's entire premise is wrong. Care to make a correction WaPo editors, or Mr. Dionne? Care to dispell the accusation that the WaPo and Mr. Dionne are so "in the tank" for Democrats that this newspaper of record will rush to make a point by cherry picking evidence for an argument, or at least doing little or no research?

Do what any professor would do in a college freshman writing course: send this thing back to the writer and have the writer correct it. Or is that too much to ask?

Posted by: zachgarber | June 4, 2010 11:09 AM | Report abuse

I think that the democrats should tout their health care achievement from coast to coast. Every democrat should run side by side with the President and make sure their vote and support for the health care bill is point 1, 2 AND 3 in every stump speech. In fact, I think Mr. Dionne should push for this from every Senate and Congressional candidate every single day from now until November! This will make the Republicans quake in their boots and pee in their pants.

Mr. Dionne - you, sir, are a genius!

Posted by: hostdude99 | June 4, 2010 2:45 PM | Report abuse

Newsflash: 0bama's Minister of Propoganda, EJ Dionne, proclaims that all democrat candidates must sing the praises of 0bamacare.

Posted by: sunnyroberto | June 5, 2010 12:23 AM | Report abuse

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