The biggest challenge for Alabama Democrats? Alabama demographics

July 10, 2023 6:59 am
A bronze map of Alabama.

A bronze map of Alabama, as seen outside the Alabama Department of Archives and History on February 8, 2023. (Brian Lyman/Alabama Reflector)

If you’re an Alabama Democrat, this has been a strange year.

On the one hand, state party leaders are back to firing guns at their feet. The people currently helming the organization think a very small number of people should call the shots. And they don’t seem to want LGBTQ individuals, young people, Native Americans, Hispanics or Asian and Pacific Islanders included in any meaningful way. So they moved to disband their caucuses.

It’s foolish. A minority party needs all the allies it can find. But the current leadership doesn’t appear interested in expanding the party beyond its current base, much less mounting significant challenges to Republicans who dominate Alabama government. 

Party conflict isn’t a bad thing per se. If Alabama Republicans hadn’t all decided to bite their lips about the allegations of sexual misconduct leveled at Roy Moore in 2017, they might not have had a Democrat in one of Alabama’s U.S. Senate seats for three years.

But the Democrats’ fight isn’t forward-looking. It’s not about a platform or a strategy. It’s about who gets to be a Democrat. A political organization that cares more about internal gatekeeping than external campaigning will remain irrelevant.

The Democratic National Committee last month decided to consider a complaint from state Democrats who’ve been disempowered and feel locked out of the process. It’s going to the same committee that ordered a rewrite of party bylaws in 2019, which led to changes in leadership. 

Intervention would have been likely whatever the circumstances. State Democratic leadership brazenly revoked the 2019 bylaws in May and dared the national party to do something about it. But members of the DNC at the June 17 meeting seemed to have a sense of urgency. 

The week before, the U.S. Supreme Court suddenly — and surprisingly — gave Democrats a chance to double their presence in the Alabama congressional delegation. 

The court sided with a three-judge panel that found a 2021 congressional map violates the Voting Rights Act. Noting that voting patterns show high racial polarization patterns — white Alabamians tend to vote Republican and Black Alabamians tend to vote Democrat — the court effectively ordered the drawing of a second U.S. House district with a substantial Black population, one that could be more within reach for Democratic candidates. 

We don’t know what that district will look like. Republicans will control the cartography during the July special session on reapportionment. But they can’t just draw a new map that benefits them. 

If the final product doesn’t please a federal court, an outsider will set the district lines. That’s a big risk for Alabama Republicans.

The upshot is that Alabama Democrats will have their first chance of holding more than one of seven U.S. House seats since 2008. 

But winning a second seat will, at best, be a small step up a Himalayan peak. 

A steep gradient

Alabama Democrats face several tests. 

Nationally, Democrats have attracted younger or more educated voters in recent years. There are fewer of those in Alabama. 

The median age of Alabama in 2022 was 39.4 years, compared with 38.9 nationwide. But among whites, who make up about 64% of the population, it’s higher still. The median age of a white Alabamian in 2021 was 42.9 years. Considering voting polarization, it will be awfully hard for Democrats to break through if the white population in the state continues skewing older.

Education levels in Alabama don’t favor Democrats, either. In the United States, a little more than 21% of the population over the age of 25 has earned a bachelor’s degree. In Alabama, it’s 16.6%. (The numbers of people who have completed an associate’s degree or attended college are slightly better in the state: 29.2% of Alabamians versus 28.1% nationwide.) 

Democrats also struggle in rural areas. According to the census, about 21% of the country’s housing units are in rural areas. In Alabama, it’s 42%

State Democrats have managed to hold their own in cities and majority-minority legislative districts. But the party struggles to attract strong statewide candidates. The 2022 slate of Democratic nominees consisted of badly funded and inexperienced newcomers, most of whom had never held elected office and were invisible in the general campaign.

The struggles at the top of the ticket led to down-ballot disaster. With overall turnout falling below 39%, many House Democrats in safe seats faced unexpectedly close elections. Rep. Thomas Jackson, D-Thomasville, a seven-term incumbent, squeezed out a 556-vote win in his majority-Black district. 

It’s unlikely that a Democrat is going to win any statewide race in Alabama soon. But you’ve got to have someone who tries. Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox didn’t come close to unseating Gov. Kay Ivey in 2018. Yet he spent money and campaigned like a major party candidate. Maddox reminded Democrats to vote that year. 

And then there’s straight-ticket voting. Democrats could resurrect Bear Bryant and run him against a Republican incumbent, and he’d still lose because roughly two-thirds of ballots cast in Alabama are entirely for one party or the other (though usually Republicans). In 21 of 67 counties, GOP straight-ticket ballots made up a majority of the votes cast in 2020. Candidate quality becomes irrelevant in that situation. 

Alabama Democrats need to focus on winnable battles. A competitive or blue-shaded congressional district will help. Fast-growing Madison County and Huntsville (where 25% of people over the age of 25 have a bachelor’s degree) offer some promise to Democrats in the coming years. Tuscaloosa and Lee Counties, also showing growth, could be more receptive to Democratic messages in the long term. 

But even an Alabama Democratic Party with perfect pitch will struggle to be heard. They’ll have to hope Republicans make mistakes that they can exploit with top-notch candidates, as they did in the 2017 U.S. Senate race

Fixing Alabama Democratic leadership will be hard. Making Alabama Democrats competitive will be even harder.


Updated at 11:10 a.m. to correct that the Alabama Democratic Party voted to revoke its 2019 bylaws in May. An earlier version said the vote took place last month. 

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Brian Lyman
Brian Lyman

Brian Lyman is the editor of Alabama Reflector. He has covered Alabama politics since 2006, and worked at the Montgomery Advertiser, the Press-Register and The Anniston Star. His work has won awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors, the Alabama Press Association and Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights. He lives in Auburn with his wife, Julie, and their three children.