Oddsmakers wouldn’t have bet on Sparks, Bentley match-up

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 21, 2010

When the campaign for governor began in earnest a year ago most experts predicted the candidates left standing for the 2010 general election would be Bradley Byrne and Artur Davis. Instead the field is set with the unlikely pairing of Robert Bentley vs. Ron Sparks. The Mississippi casinos would have certainly put better odds on their boy Bob Riley putting their Alabama competition out of business than Robert Bentley and Ron Sparks prevailing as their parties’ standard bearers for the general election.

Strange things can happen on the way to a coronation. Artur Davis assumed that because he was an African American that all of his fellow African Americans would crown him the Democratic nominee. They disobediently rejected the sophisticated Davis and chose instead a white agriculture commissioner from North Alabama who speaks with a rural twang.

The odds of Bentley being the Republican nominee were a longer shot than Sparks trouncing Davis. When the race began the business community and Republican establishment anointed Byrne to be the GOP nominee. To their credit they put their money where their mouth was and loaded him up. During the course of the Republican primary Byrne raised and spent an amazing and record-breaking $7 million. Tim James was expected to be Byrne’s runoff opponent and matched Byrne almost dollar-for-dollar in the first primary, most of which came from his own pocket. Roy Moore had the religious right sewed up. Therefore, Dr. Bentley was relegated to being a likeable also ran.

The wildcard in the GOP deck, however, was the surprise player at the table, one Dr. Paul Ray Hubbert. Ever since Dr. Hubbert’s David vs. Goliath legislative victory over George Wallace in the 1970’s, he has been the King of Goat Hill when it comes to education dollars and education issues. He has rendered eight chief executives subservient to his power and basically rendered them irrelevant in the budgeting of education dollars. None of these governors were ever bold enough to announce that they were going to dethrone King Hubbert in their opening campaign statement. However, Byrne threw down the gauntlet. It was analogous to an old western movie where a new kid, who thinks he has a fast draw, swaggers into town and calls the best known legendary gunslinger out of the bar for a gunfight. Byrne called Hubbert out and Hubbert obliged him and quickly dispensed with this challenger. Hubbert shot Byrne dead on the streets of Dexter Avenue and buried him on Goat Hill.

Byrne assumed that Hubbert would ignore his rhetoric and spend his AEA campaign largesse on legislative races as usual. He guessed wrong and that is why he is sitting in Buck’s Pocket today. Hubbert adroitly used a conduit PAC to finance more than $2 million in negative ads branding Byrne as a liberal and it worked. The polling numbers for Byrne in the closing days of the runoff revealed that he had only a 36 percent positive rating with a 33 percent negative impression. In comparison, Dr. Bentley had an amazingly low 6 percent negative with a 68 percent positive approval rating. The tracking polls revealed that Bentley would beat Byrne 56 percent to 44 percent and that is exactly what happened.

Bentley was always the most likeable candidate in the GOP field. When he began his television ads saying Alabama is sick and needs a doctor and promised not to take a salary until Alabama reaches full employment, voters were totally enthralled. They fell in love with this doctor with the countenance of a kindly grandfather.

Byrne’s desperate negative mudslinging in the runoff just did not stick. Most of the James and Moore supporters gravitated to Bentley in the runoff. He carried every county that James and Moore won in the first primary and he increased his margin of victory in all of the counties he carried on June 1st. He garnered an amazing 88 percent in his home county of Tuscaloosa. There is an old saying that your homefolks know you the best.

Given the fact that a Republican has won five of the last six governor’s races, Bentley will be favored to win this year’s governors race 15 weeks from now.