The Under-The-Radar GOP Primary That Could Shake Up Alabama

Republican Gov. Kay Ivey faces a May primary against eight opponents, including one with a link to Trump. Her attitude? Well, bless their hearts.
Gov. Kay Ivey's opponents could push her into a runoff for her second full term in office.
Gov. Kay Ivey's opponents could push her into a runoff for her second full term in office.
Associated Press

The 30-second video pinned to Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey’s Twitter page has nearly 430,000 views.

Opening with Ivey seated at a glossy wooden desk, her hands resting on top of each other, it doesn’t immediately read as a political attack from a Republican. The commercial is notable mostly for what it doesn’t say.

“Growing up, my mom and dad told us if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. Well, here’s what I have to say about Joe Biden,” Ivey says, proceeding to tap her fingers on the desk without saying a word for the next 10 seconds.

“Poor Joe,” she finally says. “Bless his heart.”

The ad, which employs a polite-sounding Southern insult, became an instant classic. When the narrator calls her “the one and only Kay Ivey,” he wasn’t exaggerating — Alabama Republicans describe Ivey as a politician entirely in her own mold, “homespun” meets “hardcore Southern grandma.”

After taking over at the height of a scandal, Ivey — who sometimes sounds like she’s not from the same GOP that uses a coded slogan to say “F**k Joe Biden” — has quietly emerged as one of the country’s most popular GOP governors.

But in this year’s chaotic midterms, even popular, relatively unproblematic state executives are facing emboldened challengers to their right, and Ivey is no exception.

Ivey’s race pits her against eight challengers and hinges on what some describe as a one-sided mini-feud with Trump and fringe candidates who are kicking up dirt over yoga (yes, yoga) and the Ten Commandments, as well as her unique profile as the nation’s oldest governor.

Ivey has two main opponents who are trying to make the case that she isn’t conservative enough on certain issues — and one is trying to leverage their own connection to Trump for an endorsement in a race Trump doesn’t seem to care much about.

Lindy Blanchard, Trump’s ambassador to Slovenia, played up her connection to the former president when she was running for U.S. Senate in Alabama last year. But Blanchard switched over to the governor’s race once Trump endorsed Rep. Mo Brooks for Senate and Blanchard’s own campaign stalled. (In an unusual rebranding, Blanchard also changed her name from Lynda to Lindy in her campaign materials when she joined the governor’s race.)

The Wall Street Journal reported at the time that Trump had offered Blanchard the endorsement against Ivey if she changed races. Trump made a similar offer to former Rep. Mark Walker if he dropped out of North Carolina’s Republican Senate primary, but Walker declined.

Trump’s representatives didn’t respond to a request for comment about the Alabama race.

“It’s not clear she’s resonating,” Steve Flowers, a political commentator and former state representative, said of Blanchard. “I think Trump sees that and says, ‘I’m not endorsing someone who’s going to get 10% [of the vote] at best.’”

Flowers, who described Ivey as “homespun” but not in a negative way, said Trump and national Republicans are probably more focused on the contest to replace retiring GOP Sen. Richard Shelby, especially now that Trump’s pick, Brooks, is trailing in polls.

It’s not clear yet whether Trump is reneging on his reported offer to Blanchard, but in local media reports, Blanchard has signaled that she’s still eyeing his endorsement. In the meantime, Blanchard has committed to spending millions of her own dollars on her campaign.

“In Alabama, having a governor who doesn’t embarrass us is a big deal.”

- Republican political consultant Angi Horn

Does Trump “care enough about this, even though Lindy was his ambassador to Melania’s home country?” one political consultant asked HuffPost, referring to the former first lady, who is from Slovenia. “Not just a little country stuck somewhere — his wife’s country.”

“Now, has Gov. Ivey done something or not done something to make him mad? That’s the question,” the consultant added.

There’s one incident involving Trump that hasn’t faded from memory. Last summer, the commission that oversees the USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park in Mobile denied a request for a GOP event featuring Brooks and the former president. Ivey’s supporters point out she had nothing to do with the decision, which was made by an independent agency.

But her opponents may see it as their opening with Trump. One GOP strategist even framed it as the only reason Ivey is facing a primary.

“The other candidates [likely] believe Trump would endorse against her over the USS Alabama Battleship issue,” this person said. “He feels like Ivey didn’t help him since the independent commission wouldn’t approve it.”

At 77, Ivey is the nation's oldest governor, and supporters say attacks based on her age are sexist.
At 77, Ivey is the nation's oldest governor, and supporters say attacks based on her age are sexist.
Butch Dill/Associated Press

Political observers aren’t convinced that Blanchard or Ivey’s other major opponent, Tim James, the son of former Gov. Fob James, have enough name ID to beat a governor with high approval ratings. James, a toll bridge developer, ran unsuccessfully for governor twice before. He launched his most recent bid with a scorched-earth appeal against progressive cultural issues after lashing out against “critical race theory,” transgender acceptance and yoga in schools.

Last year, Alabama lawmakers overturned a 30-year ban on yoga in public schools, passed originally due to the practice’s roots in the Hindu religion. James said he wants legislators to reinstate the ban, while another candidate in the GOP primary is “pro-yoga.”

“Personally, I believe our governor is a good person,” James said at the onset of his campaign in January, according to the Alabama Political Reporter. “She has been a friend of our family for 40 years. But I think the administration is overwhelmed. And I am running for governor because I believe the leadership in this state [has] capitulated to the political structures that control Montgomery. They just don’t have the stomach for the fight.”

Even with long odds for Blanchard and James, the two could siphon off enough votes to force Ivey into a runoff. She needs to win at least 50% of the vote in the May 24 primary to avoid another round against the second-place finisher in August. In a bright red state like Alabama, the winner of the GOP primary is all but guaranteed to win the general election.

A longtime Republican consultant in the state believes it’s “very likely” that Ivey faces a runoff and that her opponents “split up the votes pretty hard.”

This month, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) easily won his primary despite challengers from his right who argued he shouldn’t have implemented early COVID lockdowns and that he hasn’t been strong enough on the U.S.-Mexico border. In May, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) will face a primary against opponents who argue he went too far with COVID orders in 2020.

Tim James, the son of former Gov. Fob James, is running for the GOP nomination for Alabama governor against Kay Ivey.
Tim James, the son of former Gov. Fob James, is running for the GOP nomination for Alabama governor against Kay Ivey.
Kim James/Associated Press

In Alabama, Ivey has detractors who believe she should have never issued a statewide mask mandate. They also point to the state’s 2019 gas tax, implemented to fund road repairs and other infrastructure improvements. It doesn’t stop there: Ivey is also facing an opponent who accused her of lying about her commitment to displaying the Ten Commandments.

“Has she been perfect? No. But she took a state that was coming apart at the seams and make it strong in terms of economic development and infrastructure,” said Angi Horn, a Republican political consultant in Montgomery. “And she really hasn’t done anything to embarrass us. In Alabama, having a governor who doesn’t embarrass us is a big deal.”

Ivey, the former lieutenant governor, took over as governor in 2017 after Republican Robert Bentley resigned amid a sex scandal that nearly resulted in his impeachment. A former high school teacher and bank officer, Ivey worked in Gov. Fob James’ Cabinet before running for state treasurer and serving in that role from 2003 to 2011.

Besides being one of the nation’s few female governors and the second woman to ever hold the job in Alabama, Ivey enjoys another distinction: She’s currently the country’s oldest governor. But at 77, Ivey is vulnerable to what some consider sexist attacks rooted in her age, even though she’s roughly the same age as Biden, 79, and Trump, 75.

“Republicans who talk about her age are in a real sticky spot,” Horn said. “She and Donald Trump are around the same age. So if you say she’s too old to be governor, as a Republican in Alabama, are you saying that Donald Trump is too old to be president? You can’t criticize someone’s age unless you’re also going to criticize Donald Trump.”

Despite what her critics might say, Ivey is probably one of the nation’s most conservative governors. The same year she pushed through the gas tax, she signed into law a near-total abortion ban with a sentence of up to 99 years in prison for doctors who perform the procedure. Last year, she signed a law banning transgender students from participating in sports. Alabama legislators are now advancing a bill that could eventually land on Ivey’s desk that makes it a criminal offense for doctors to provide transgender minors with gender-affirming medical treatment. Ivey has offered no indication to date that she wouldn’t support such a bill.

Horn said Ivey is likely to power through the primary on the strength of her personality and her ability to govern.

“Out in the world, she’s viewed as approachable, tough and kind of nurturing — sort of like a hardcore Southern grandmother. She’s going to do what’s right, and you don’t want to cross her,” Horn said. “Inside the political circles, the statehouse, she’s seen as someone you don’t want to cross. You do not cross her.”

Go To Homepage

Popular in the Community