What Marilyn Lands’ special election win means for Alabama, and Republican politics

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Marilyn Lands’ victory in an Alabama statehouse race in North Alabama on Tuesday followed a similar script for Alabama Democrats on the rare occasions they topple a Republican within the ruby red state.

That includes winning a special election, receiving a boost from national media exposure, and generating support from Republicans.

It happened for Doug Jones in his special election win to the U.S. Senate in 2017. And 16 years ago, James Fields received national media exposure for becoming the first Black politician to win an Alabama state House seat in predominantly white Cullman County.

Republicans hope the follow-up election for Lands mirrors Jones and Fields, who both lost when they appeared on the next general election ballot.

“One low turnout special election does not define success for the Democrat Party,” said John Wahl, the chairman of the Alabama GOP, who is already targeting Lands’ seat in 2026 when turnout will be greater than Tuesday’s 14.5%.

But some observers believe that Republicans will not have it easy winning back the legislative seat in a fast-growing district, especially if there isn’t a more moderate approach toward abortion rights and reproductive freedom for women.

Said Jonathan Gray, a Republican Party strategist, “I don’t think there was a lot of anticipation that the Republican was going to run away with this race, but it was definitely a surprise in the margin and I think it’s a result of IVF, professional women (motivated to vote), and outside money.”

Few believe the Lands victory represents a “political watershed” in Alabama politics. Her win was buoyed by a campaign focused on abortion rights in the aftermath of the Alabama State Supreme Court’s decision in February that frozen embryos used during in vitro fertilization are children under state law.

“Is this a trend or watershed? Not really,” said Wayne Flynt, a political historian who has analyzed Alabama politics and culture for over 50 years. “Just a reminder that many chunks of Alabama, especially those with high incomes and more education think differently from areas where men think they have a right to tell women to stay home, pregnant and quiet.”

Alabama House District 10, which includes southern portions of Madison County including Redstone Arsenal and the Huntsville International Airport, is experiencing rapid growth, a changing demographic and is considered “moderate” politically.

“Democrats have generally been doing better in the suburbs so that may be part of what is going on too, just the general trend of those kinds of districts trending more favorably for Democrats,” said Regina Wagner, a political science professor at the University of Alabama. “But I think it is hard to argue against the IVF/abortion rights issue playing a pretty crucial role here.”

House District 10 has been described as a politically “purple” district – meaning it is a more of a political toss-up during a general election contest between a Republican and Democrat. Some pundits say the district is a slight lean toward Republicans given former President Donald Trump’s 1 percentage point victory within the district in 2020.

Gray said the district is a +5 advantage for the Democratic Party in area of Madison County with a “tremendous amount of military, technological and science” professionals and a large number of professional women who are “always more likely to vote in special elections,” and were even more motivated given the issue of reproductive rights that Lands was running on.

“Huntsville obviously is a high-tech city in a low-tech state,” said Flynt, an observer of state political history and culture for over 50 years. “Because of changes in Huntsville during my lifetime, notably the (Tennessee Valley Authority) and the space program, its politics have become more like mainstream American politics than parochial Alabama politics – i.e., a two-party system, women’s rights, and women’s control of their own bodies.”

He added, “It’s a continuation of pockets that resemble the rest of America in numerous socio-economic patterns voting like similar women do in similar areas of America. And lots of husbands married to such women are furious that traditional Alabama politics ignores them.”

Growing district

Chris Horn, a former Republican candidate for Alabama Secretary of State who is also chairman of the Tennessee Valley Republican Club, said that since 2022, the House district has seen an explosion of new development and apartment complexes “that is bringing in a different population who are moving here temporarily.” They are younger, and their political leanings veer to the left, he said.

Lands lost to Republican David Cole during the 2022 election. Cole was removed from office last year after he was found guilty of voter fraud, creating a vacancy that led to Tuesday’s special election.

“It’s just a moderate area,” Horn said. “It does not have the discord of hot button issues and we’re likely to see more middle-of-the road and independent voters who are making their voices heard.”

He said if Republicans want to win back the seat, they will need to recruit independent voters and be “moderate on some of their issues.”

He’s not the only one with that opinion.

Jess Brown, a retired political science professor at Athens State University and a longtime observer of Alabama politics, said on the issue of abortion rights and reproductive freedom, the GOP is increasingly viewed as out-of-touch from mainstream America especially in the aftermath of the Alabama State Supreme Court’s ruling that temporarily upended IVF treatments at the state’s largest health providers.

“The IVF decision sort of jolted the arena of abortion politics,” Brown said. “The Republican legislature responded quickly and attempted to fix the problem (by granting immunity to IVF providers). But, still, I think the IVF decision and the publicity surrounding it really did inject a new element into the thinking of abortion policies and politics both in Alabama and nationally.”

He added, “It started to make the Republican Party look like something other than simply the defenders of a fetus in the late stages of gestation and not as the party that wants to move the government into family planning and contraception.”

Gray said the IVF issue is proving hard for Republicans to find the right message to communicate to the general public following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in 2022, that overturned abortion protections granted under Roe v. Wade.

“Everybody knows that Republicans oppose abortion because they protect life,” he said. “IVF is the creation of life, so when you create laws that indirectly impact that, it becomes very hard to explain. Why are we opposed to IVF? We are not. But when you have to start explaining something, you already lost.”

Related content: ‘Very dangerous issue for them’: How Republicans regroup after Alabama court’s IVF ruling

GOP reaction

John Wahl

John Wahl, chairman of the Alabama State Republican Party, speaks during a luncheon hosted by the Eastern Shore Republican Women on Thursday, September 14, 2023, at the Fairhope Yacht Club in Fairhope, Ala. (John Sharp/[email protected]).

Wahl, in his remarks after the special election, did not bring up the issue of abortion and reproductive rights that Democrats have effectively utilized to a political advantage nationwide since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in 2022 in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

That decision upended a right to abortion long protected under Roe v. Wade. Since then, 21 states – including Alabama – have banned abortion or restricted the procedure.

“National Democrats are trying to say that House District 10 is a bellwether decision, not just for Alabama but for the entire country,” he said. “What they forget to report is that this is a purple district where Democrats always had a chance. Pretending that this reflects the entire state of Alabama is disingenuous and shows either a lack of understanding of the political process or an attempt to mislead voters.”

Wahl said he’s not sure a moderate approach is the right path in the fast-growing Tennessee Valley area.

He noted that Republican Teddy Powell, a member of the Madison City Council, held onto a “middle-of-the-road strategy” in hopes of bringing out swing voters.

It didn’t work, he said.

“That was the candidate’s decision, and we respected it, though unfortunately (it) didn’t have the desired outcome,” Wahl said. “The Alabama Republican Party has been extremely successful in swing districts across the state highlighting bold, conservative messaging that pushes back on the Democrat Party and its flawed policies.”

Abortion politics

About 300 people gathered to protest in support of abortion access Saturday, June 25, 2022 in Linn Park in Birmingham, Alabama.

About 300 people gathered to protest in support of abortion access Saturday, June 25, 2022 in Linn Park in Birmingham, Alabama. Sarah Swetlik/AL.com

Democratic activists nationally, though, say that abortion politics cannot be ignored. The Lands victory follows post-Dobbs initiatives in Kansas and Kentucky – two red states – in which voters rejected efforts to restrict abortion access. Voters in Ohio, which also leans right, approved a ballot initiative in November that puts protections for reproductive health decisions into the state constitution.

Following the Alabama Supreme Court’s IVF ruling, the National Republican Senatorial Committee urged candidates to distance themselves from the ruling. A NRSC memo to candidates in February cited polling by former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway that showed 85% of respondents support access to fertility-related procedures including a broad group that includes “pro-life advocates” and evangelicals. Another whopping 85% say they would back candidates who prioritize increasing the availability of contraceptives and fertility-related treatments, according to reports.

“Focusing on this issue worked for Marilyn Lands in a Republican-leaning district, so it’s obviously salient,” said Kylie Murdock, policy advisor of the left-leaning The Third Way, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. “Democrats should continue hitting Republicans for their extremism, on abortion and other issues, and show that we’re the party for freedom and real solutions.”

Gray said Republicans are going to continue to be confronted with IVF questions even after the GOP supermajority Legislature voted to grant immunity to health providers to administer IVF treatments following the Alabama State Supreme Court’s ruling.

“Some people want to say the Legislature fixed the problem,” he said. “The Legislature fixed the problem for doctors and hospitals but for women and families, they will still have to deal with questions — like what do I do if I want my embryos destroyed? This is not going to go away before November.”

Gray said with Roe v. Wade overturned, he’s uncertain why Republicans continue to push for personhood legislation in states and in Congress.

“Do we really need to define when life begins anymore?” he said. “It’s a very complicated problem for Republicans and one that is difficult to explain even for those in leadership.”

Few pundits believe the Lands win represents a future shift of Republican dominance in the Legislature, where it has long held a supermajority advantage. Gray said he doesn’t see a similar result occurring in red, and growing legislative districts in counties like Blount, Shelby or Baldwin.

But Brown says that Lands’ 25-point margin of victory is something that cannot be ignored.

“Supermajorities, by their very nature, tend to start to abuse their power,” Brown said. “That’s virtually with anything. The Democrats did it. I watched them in the Alabama Legislature. They eventually lost it altogether.”

He added, “I’m not saying we’re waking up in an election cycle or two and Alabama will be a blue state. But the Alabama Legislature and its leadership better understand that if you’re a supermajority and you abuse it, you might just lose it. Eventually your own partisans will say, ‘this is not an image I have in my head about good government.’”



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