Bob Riley should run for President. Seriously.
Or Jeff Sessions. No, seriously.
I, personally, wouldn’t vote for either, and the chance they’d become president or even the GOP nominee is next to nil – but the existing field of Republican presidential candidates is undoubtedly missing a Southern candidate.
Of course, on paper Newt Gingrich could be classified as “Southern”. That myth can be debunked solely by noting Gingrich’s self-proclaimed favorite band (ABBA). Indeed, Gingrich was so desperate to get to out of the South that he ran and lost for Congress twice, before finally getting his ticket punched to DC on his third bid. And after leaving Congress in 1998, he’s lived in McLean, VA (a posh hamlet in Northern Virginia) – currently with his third wife (a Midwesterner). Newt Gingrich may have technically represented suburban Atlanta in Congress, but he’s about as “Southern” as …well, ABBA.
And Herman Cain and Buddy Roemer may be credible Southerners, but I do not believe them to be credible presidential candidates.
Mike Huckabee, who carried several Southern states in the ’08 primaries, would have entered the 2012 primary process counting the Southeast among his expected base. And some – like Haley Barbour, Rick Perry (perhaps still a possibility), Jim Demint (perhaps still a possibility), Jeb Bush or Bobby Jindal – who could have filled the Southern-sized vacuum left by Huckabee’s withdrawal, appear to have likewise taken a pass.
It’s hard to imagine that in today’s Republican Party, there is no real Southern candidate in a wide-open race for the party’s nomination. Huckabee emerged as the Southern guy in 2008, George W. Bush was always strong in his home region, and Tennessean Lamar(!) Alexander was even a top-tier candidate in 1996. Even as the GOP has become an increasingly Southern-dominated party, somehow there is no candidate to carry that torch in the 2012 presidential race.
Conventional wisdom has the Republican top tier consisting of: a former Governor of Massachusetts (Mitt Romney, by way of Utah and Michigan), a former Governor of Minnesota (Tim Pawlenty), and a former Governor of Utah (John Huntsman, by way of China). None have any connection, however remote, to the region that has come to identify today’s Republican Party. And the potential candidates with the most stylistic and ideological appeal to Southerners (at least those in the evangelical, conservative mold) hail from Alaska (Palin) or the Twin Cities’ suburbs (Bachmann).
Politics, like nature, usually abhors a vacuum – and it would seem there is a real opening for a candidate who would have a natural appeal to Southern Republicans. As a Republican Governor who left office fairly popular, Bob Riley certainly would have the potential to fill that void – as would Jeff Sessions, who is often the GOP face on all matters judicial.
Alabama is not alone in this regard – this same scenario could be floated for many other Republican governors and Senators across the South, as well. Ultimately, their success would depend on an ability to piece together a nation-wide fundraising and political network, which is difficult to do under any circumstance and especially for a relatively unknown candidate who gets a late start. However, Mike Huckabee wasn’t a national face of the Republican Party until he ran (a largely shoe-string campaign) in 2008, got some early traction, and developed a base in the South.
There is no guarantee of success of any kind for a Riley or a Sessions bid, but they could (if they catch some breaks) solidify some establishment support in the South and maybe even break into the top tier and win a few primaries. But most importantly, it would provide our state with something it hasn’t had since John Sparkman circa 1952 – an Alabamian with a chance to have a direct impact in determining who will sit in the White House for the next four years.
Zac McCrary is a Democratic pollster with Anzalone Liszt Research, a national public opinion research firm with offices in Montgomery, AL and Washington D.C. He is a former communications director for the Alabama Democratic Party, a past contributor to Campaigns and Elections Magazine, and a regular commentator on both state and national politics. You may reach him via email using his first name at anzaloneresearch dot com.