Early speculation on the 2020 U.S. Senate race had state Sen. Del Marsh listed as a potential GOP aspirant. He had considered making a plunge into the special election contest for Jeff Sessions’ seat in 2017 but opted out.
Most astute observers never thought he would ultimately pull the trigger then, or this year. Unlike others who have run and won statewide, Marsh is essentially unknown outside of the state capital and is known only around his Anniston Senate district. His best asset was probably that he had his own money to spend rather than his state Senate influence.
His name appeared on a Mason-Dixon poll conducted in April with other potential candidates, including Roy Moore, Bradley Byrne, Mo Brooks and Gary Palmer. The name identification of these four ranged from 90% for Moore to 40% for Palmer. Marsh had 3% name identification. Soon after, he said that he was not going to run.
It was a wise decision. He could not have won, and if he could, he would not be as powerful as he is in his current position. As president pro tem of the state Senate, he is very influential. In fact, he has more influence over public policy in his current post than he would as a freshman U.S. senator, especially a 64-year-old freshman.
Marsh’s abysmal name identification is no surprise. My observation over the years is that state legislators, regardless of how powerful they are in Montgomery, are unknown statewide. The bottom line is that the Legislature is not a good steppingstone to higher elected office, especially the U.S. Senate.
A very similar scenario to Marsh’s occurred years ago. Then state House Speaker Seth Hammett of Andalusia was contemplating running for governor. Like Marsh, Hammett’s role as speaker made him the most powerful of all 140 House and Senate members. He was well-liked and -respected among his legislative colleagues. He was and still is beloved in his native Covington County.
Well, Hammett’s first due diligence was to conduct a benchmark poll. He commissioned one of the best pollsters in the South and awaited the results. When it came back, the mild-mannered, respected speaker of the House had 3% name identification. Hammett’s potential opponent, Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley, had 78% name ID. Hammett chose not to run for governor but remain as speaker.
My good friend Mac McArthur has been the head of the Alabama State Employees Association for more than two decades. Not many folks know this, but McArthur is a lawyer and was a prosecutor as a young man. He also was director of the State Ethics Commission for a few years before moving to the ASEA.
He had political aspirations as a young prosecutor. He really wanted to be attorney general of Alabama. While he was ethics chairman, he was planning to run for attorney general. Like Hammett, McArthur’s first step was to get a benchmark name identification poll. McArthur hired the best pollster in the state. He was confident that he had some significant name identification because he had just gotten some good statewide publicity for some high-profile prosecutions as ethics chairman.
The pollster called McArthur soon after the poll and said, “Come on over.” McArthur rushed over to his office and anxiously awaited the results. His pollster began by telling McArthur he had good news — you have almost 6% statewide name identification. McArthur’s despondent reply was, “The only thing good I see in that is I can run through Winn Dixie butt-naked and nobody will know who I am.”
Alabama’s greatest and most legendary political icon, George C. Wallace, knew the importance of name identification. During his early years, the place to stay for all legislators and power brokers was the old Exchange Hotel in downtown Montgomery. Wallace would of course stay there during the legislative sessions as a young legislator from Barbour County. It was a hotbed of politics and many a political deal was consummated on the premises. Wallace would pay the bellhop a tip every day to walk through the lobby and sing out loudly, “George Wallace, calling George Wallace.”
Wallace would use the same gimmick at the University of Alabama football games in the fall. He would get the PA announcer to call out his name, “Calling George Wallace.” Name identification is a vital ingredient for success in politics. The master of Alabama politics knew this fact of political life.