Seen incumbent Gov. Kay Ivey on the campaign trail lately? If you have, you’re one of a small group of Alabamians.
Ivey’s drive for election to the state’s top office – a post she’s held since her predecessor, Dr. Robert Bentley, resigned in disgrace – has been low key, close to invisible. Since Sept. 20, Ivey has appeared at nine official events, but the only one geared toward the general public was a meet-and-greet on the Cullman County Courthouse steps held Friday, Oct. 19, at 6 p.m. — a time when many residents were well on their way to see their Cullman High Bearcats kick off at Hartselle an hour later.
All the rest have been at Republican Party rallies and dinners. They have run the gamut from the well-attended Tuscaloosa County GOP Lincoln-Reagan Dinner at Bryant-Denny Stadium, a Baldwin County GOP fish fry, and a hastily scheduled rally at a Harley-Davidson motorcycle dealership last Saturday morning in Pelham, where about 40 people met the governor.
The schedule has been light. Some of that is because Ivey still has gubernatorial duties that don’t go away come election time. Still, her appearances have been few and mostly geared toward party faithful. At nearly all the events, Ivey stuck to a well-rehearsed “stump speech” that has rarely varied from place to place.
Her staff has made her available to the news media at each stop along the way, and she hasn’t dodged any questions, though sometimes answers appear rehearsed as well. She gave much the same response in appearances in Tuscaloosa and Fairhope about claims by Democratic opponent Walt Maddox that her staff hid details of a hospital stay in Colorado in 2015: “That’s sad, but I have to assume that Mayor Maddox is desperate because his liberal record is not in step with Alabama.” Ivey disputes that she suffered from a mini-stroke on that trip and that she asked her staff to cover up the hospital stay.
Media attendance at her events has been low; in four events staffed by a reporter from BirminghamWatch, only one had another print or online reporter from the city where the event was held, and three events had a single TV news crew.
In the full week just before the election, Ivey was off the campaign trail, appearing only with Vice President Mike Pence when he visited Birmingham. She is scheduled to finish her campaign on Monday with a six-stop series of “tarmac rallies” — events held at airports beginning in the morning in Montgomery and finishing in late afternoon in Birmingham, with stops in Huntsville, Mobile, Dothan and Auburn.
Sitting on a Lead
In football vernacular, Ivey — like almost all Republican candidates for statewide races in this election cycle — is sitting on a big lead and trying to run out the clock. Independent polls have been almost non-existent for the general election; the few that have polled Alabama voters showed that the Ivey-led GOP ticket will prevail by 20 percentage points or more on Election Day.
The Maddox campaign has tried to attack Ivey, or at least engage her, on issues such as a state lottery, enhanced staffing of state troopers, a state contribution match to make possible more than $30 million of available federal funding to fix a failing sewer system in Uniontown, and even her refusal to take on Maddox in a televised debate.
The accusations have failed to gain much traction in news coverage and have been quickly brushed aside by Ivey under questioning by reporters, often with a typical Southern-fried saying like, “I’ve been busier than a bee in a tar bucket.”
It’s a strategy that is very smart, says Dr. Wayne Flynt, professor emeritus of history at Auburn University and one of the state’s leading observers of its political history, with two of his books on the topic nominated for Pulitzer Prizes.
“I think her handlers have run a pretty professional, pretty good campaign,” Flynt said. “In addition, I find it refreshing that she didn’t dip into demagoguery like most Republican candidates have done over the last few years, sort of accusing their opponent of being in league with Beelzebub. … Her managers are quite skilled.”
“There are many reasons why a candidate who has a big advantage in polling and in money would not agree to a debate, which puts her opponent on equal footing with her,” Flynt added.
Flynt: Boring Might Be Good
The biggest challenge that Ivey has faced in this campaign was to simply not make a mistake, which is easier to do when public appearances are fewer and farther between.
“Given the chaos and the moral problems of the preceding governor and since she is a Republican in a strongly Republican state, just plowing a straight furrow between two trees would have been enough to assure (Ivey) would start off as the favorite,” Flynt said. “She was going to significantly outspend Walt Maddox as well, and when you are a challenger, especially one who’s virtually unknown outside Tuscaloosa County when the campaign started, it takes a lot more money in a big state like Alabama.”
So in this race, “boring” might be a positive attribute for a candidate or a campaign, he asserted.
“I would argue that most Alabamians want Alabama to be boring right now. After (the scandals of former state House Speaker Mike) Hubbard, Roy Moore and Bentley, nothing suits most Alabamians better than moving our politics off the national media stage,” Flynt said.
With few pressing issues and even less conflict, Ivey’s campaign can best be described as uneventful.