MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama Democrats - for years obliterated from all statewide offices in the Deep South and deeply red state - go into the fall election season with high optimism, but fighting tough math and historical trends, as they seek to build off last year's victory of U.S. Sen. Doug Jones.
Buoyed by Jones' victory as the first Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate from the state in a quarter century, Democrats have newfound energy heading into the November election. Walt Maddox, the mayor of Tuscaloosa turned Democratic nominee for governor, leads what many Democrats say is their strongest ticket in decades, as he mounts a challenge against incumbent Republican Gov. Kay Ivey.
The governor's race is "probably the most competitive race that we've seen in a couple of decades," Jones said.
"Democrats really need to focus on the issues that people care about every day," Jones said. "That's their health care, their jobs, their wages, education for their children," Jones said.
While the hope is high, the math remains daunting for Democrats.
Republicans held all statewide offices until Jones' December win over Republican Roy Moore in the special election to fill Jeff Sessions' Senate seat. Alabama has not elected a Democrat as governor since 1998 when Gov. Don Siegelman ran on a platform — like Maddox is today — of establishing a state lottery to fund education.
Primary numbers suggest much heavier voter interest on the GOP side. More than a half million voters cast ballots in the GOP gubernatorial primary on June 5 — with 330,743 of those votes going to Ivey alone — while only 283,081 people voted in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
"That's not a blue wave. That's a red tsunami continuing," Alabama Republican Party Chairwoman Terry Lathan said.
Lathan and other Republicans have argued that Jones' December victory over Roy Moore in the special election for U.S. Senate was an anomaly. Moore was a polarizing candidate figure, after twice being ousted from chief justice duties, and then became dogged by sexual misconduct allegations during the campaign. Moore still almost won, Lathan said.
Jones said he understands that argument is out there, but he thinks it is misguided.
"They just don't fully comprehend the energy that is out there for change," Jones said
Democrats have a stronger ticket in November than they've had in several election cycles, said Bill Stewart, a political scientist and longtime observer of state politics.
Maddox, campaigning on a platform of establishing a state lottery to fund education, argues that Alabama's progress has stagnated.
"Alabama is still 46th, 47th, 48th, 49th and 50th in everything that matters. We have got to have leadership that is focused on the next generation," Maddox said after his June 5 win.
Ivey campaign spokeswoman Debbee Hancock said in a statement after the primary that the voting numbers don't match Democrats' narrative that "the momentum and enthusiasm are on their side."
"This so called 'blue wave' is a joke," she said.
An unknown for Democrats headed into election season is if they can raise the campaign funds to be competitive in advertising.
Ivey has so far enjoyed a tremendous financial advantage, raising more than $4 million to Maddox's $1 million.
However, just as Republicans were aided by a series of Democratic corruption scandals as they became the dominant party in state politics, Democrats are hoping to capitalize on recent scandals in the GOP — including the resignation of former Gov. Robert Bentley and the ethics conviction of House Speaker Mike Hubbard.
Historian Wayne Flynt said he is writing in an upcoming history book that the state ought to contemplate, "changing its motto from 'We Dare Defend Our Rights" to "often embarrassing, but never boring."
"In 2010, Alabamians voted Republican because they thought Republicans would end the corruption only to now have the Republican Party just like the old Democratic Party. Maybe what we are moving toward now is a genuine two party system," Flynt said.