How the GOP won in 1986

Published 9:50 am Wednesday, November 11, 2009

By Staff
The 1986 governor’s race will be remembered as one of Alabama’s most amazing political stories. In 1978 Fob James sent the Three Bs, Brewer, Beasley and Baxley, packing. Brewer and Beasley had been permanently exiled to Buck’s Pocket, the mythical destination for defeated Alabama gubernatorial candidates. However, Bill Baxley resurrected his political career by bouncing back to be elected lieutenant governor in 1982, while George Wallace was winning his fifth and final term as governor. Another player arrived on the state political scene. Charlie Graddick was elected as a fiery tough attorney general. Graddick had previously been a tough prosecuting district attorney in Mobile.
When Wallace bowed out from seeking reelection in 1986 it appeared the race was between Baxley and Graddick. It also appeared there was a clear ideological divide. The moderates and liberals in Alabama were for Baxley and the arch conservatives were for Graddick. Baxley had the solid support of black voters, labor and progressives. Graddick had the hard core conservatives, including most of the Republican voters.
The Republicans had gone to a primary by 1986 but very few Alabamians, even Republicans, participated. It was still assumed that the Democratic primary was tantamount to election.
Baxley and Graddick went after each other with a vengeance in the primary. They truly personally disliked each other. The race was close. Graddick came out on top by an eyelash. He encouraged Republicans to come vote for him in the Democratic primary. They did and that is why he won.
After Graddick defeated Baxley by less than 25,000 votes in the runoff primary, the Democratic party did the unthinkable. They convened the hierarchy of the party, who clearly favored Baxley, and declared Baxley the Democratic nominee because they guessed Graddick had won the primary with Republican crossover voters. They paraded experts in front of their committee to testify that Baxley should have won if just Democrats had voted. They boldly and brazenly chose Baxley as the nominee in spite of the fact that Graddick had clearly gotten the most votes.
This move went against the grain of the vast majority of Alabama voters. They felt that Graddick, even if they had not voted for him, got the most votes and should be the nominee. The Democratic party leadership sluffed it off. They assumed that the Democratic nominee would win regardless. After all there had not been a Republican governor of Alabama in 100 years. In addition, the Republicans had chosen an unknown former Cullman County probate judge named Guy Hunt. Hunt had no money and no name identification.