Morning in Alabama

Across the nation last Tuesday, the political stats for conservatives read like a fantasy dream team: a more than 60-seat Republican gain in the U.S. Congress. Eleven newly minted Republican governors (and that many more potential Republican presidents). And finally, 680 GOP gains in state legislatures, for the greatest state-level control since 1928.

But one of the most remarkable – and promising – victories of this election went mostly unmarked. While pundits dissected Nikki Haley’s win and Marco Rubio’s triumph, elsewhere in the South one of the greatest Republican upsets in the history of the party was taking place – in Alabama.

In Northern Alabama, where the foothills of the Appalachian mountains step down slowly into the rich foliage of the Tennessee Valley, there exists a perpetual tension between new and old, soil and stars. It is a region where cotton stalks waver in the blast of NASA test engines, and bird watchers along the rolling Tennessee River are as accustomed to the sonic boom of jet fighters as they are to the throaty croak of blue herons.

Tradition, dating back to the Civil War, has long held sway here, and thus the Democratic Party has too (Republicans being none too popular in the wake of Reconstruction). But days before the November 2nd elections, Republicans, Tea Partiers, and the generally fed-up, gathered for a “Sweep out the Democrats” rally near Huntsville, the state’s technology capital. By the time voters put down their brooms and watched the dust settle, they’d swept out more liberals than most had dared to dream. Of the seven U.S. House seats Alabama holds, only one remained Democratic.

So it was last Tuesday that one of the most exciting Congressional races in Alabama ended in triumph for the Republicans, with congressman-elect Mo Brooks netting an astonishing 57.9 percent of the vote. When the last Republican won Alabama District 5, Robert E. Lee was still breathing the sweet Virginia air and Alabama had just been readmitted to the Union.

A constitutional conservative, Mo Brooks is only the second Republican ever elected to his seat. At NASA’s U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Brooks gave his victory speech to a cheering crowd of supporters while standing, fittingly, beneath a replica of the Saturn V rocket, the vehicle that propelled mankind to the moon. His issues-based campaign launched him above the mudslinging and won the hearts of voters in a region long shy of political change.

Elsewhere in the state, Alabamians were electing the first Republican-controlled House and Senate in 136 years. Remarkable upsets included first-time candidate Shadrack McGill’s triumph in his state senate race (defeating Alabama’s own Marion Barry, seven-time Senator and ex-president pro tempore, liberal Lowell Barron). The Governorship and Lt. Governor spot went Republican too, as conservatives literally swept Democratic contenders away.

Southerners have a longer history – and longer memories – than do many other parts of the country, and the Democrats’ dominance has long reflected resentment at the devastation of Reconstruction, which left much of the Deep South economically depressed for more than a century, as well as a fondness for FDR’s New Deal. Not that liberals are grateful. Alabama is often taken for granted by the Democratic Party, which regards her as a lowly, back-porch cousin and a crutch to lean on for extra votes. Now, liberals are reaping a whirlwind of regrets and recriminations from citizens long-marginalized and little appreciated.

There’s a popular jazz song in Dixie, called Stars Fell on Alabama. The title is serendipitous for the Right – this year, the stars aligned for a GOP victory. From illegal health-care legislation to out-of-control spending, the policies of President Obama and soon-to-be-former Speaker Nancy Pelosi encouraged voters to declare that 136 years of Democratic rule was enough. 

Back in 1984, Reagan campaigned for his second term by proclaiming that under Republican rule, it was, once again, “morning in America.” November 2, 2010, will long be regarded as a night to remember in American politics. But for Alabama, the day is just beginning.