al.com | Published: May. 20, 2022, 7:30 a.m.
Lew Burdette was checking in to a Hampton Inn in Dothan after a long day of campaigning recently when he spotted man standing in the lobby. Burdette decided to introduce himself.
“I had a push card in my pocket and figured that this guy will be from out of town or will be passing through,” Burdette said. “I gave him my card and he said, ‘you’re the guy talking Alabama issues’ and ‘you’re the one saying that education has to be No. 1. That’s why I’m voting for you.’”
Burdette continued, “I was blown away. I mean, I was in a Hampton Inn and was not expecting that comment.”
Burdette, 62, of Vestavia Hills, is hopeful that more people are feeling the same way as Tuesday’s primary fast approaches. A political novice who entered the governor’s race as a longshot candidate, Burdette has climbed comfortably into fourth place in recent polling and is hopeful to make a push at the frontrunners before the primary.
He’s still a longshot. But recent polls show Burdette’s focus on Alabama-centric issues resonating with some voters, as three more well-funded frontrunners – incumbent Gov. Kay Ivey, businessman Tim James and former Trump ambassador Lindy Blanchard – are battling it out over the airwaves with splashy ads focused more on nationalized issues and opposition of President Joe Biden.
The most recent Emerson College/The Hill poll had Burdette polling at 6.9%, or 4 percentage points behind Blanchard’s 11.1%. James was in second place at 17.4%, a distant 10 percentage points ahead of Burdette
“He is one of those candidates who started out with no past in politics, never been a candidate before and had limited resources to compete with the three heavyweights in the race,” said Jess Brown, a retired political science professor from Athens State University and a longtime observer of Alabama state politics. “He’s the most telegenic of the candidates. He’s probably gotten the attention of some folks who are looking at future races and he has, indeed, talked about issues really germane to a state agenda.”
The governor’s race on Tuesday will focus primarily on whether Ivey can receive enough votes to avoid a June 21 runoff. Polling suggests she’s not quite at the 50% needed to avoid the runoff, although plenty of voters remained undecided.
Burdette, along with Opelika pastor Dean Odle, are viewed somewhat as spoilers whose candidacy have been bolstered by grassroots campaigning.
Odle, who is running in fifth place, is polling at 2.5%-3.5%.
Burdette dismisses any notion that his candidacy is considered a spoiler. He said that his poll numbers have “tripled” within the past 30 to 40 days.
“I know we’ll peak on May 24 and will be the one in the runoff,” said Burdette, who has long led the Birmingham Christian non-profit King’s Home and spent 13 years as an executive with Books-A-Million.
“There might not be many people predicting that in the media, but that’s what I see and what people are talking about across the state,” Burdette said. “Everyone else has spent millions, except for me. We’ve spent a fraction of that and look at the momentum we’ve gained.”
Odle, pastor at Fire and Grace Church in Opelika, said his campaign opted to save its limited campaign resources on advertising closer to the primary, while traveling “53,000 miles across the state.”
“I think our grassroots will surprise some folks,” he said. “I knew it would hit toward the end here. We’re going to do better than what is polling, and I definitely think Ivey will be pulled under the 50 percent.”
Jon Gray, a political campaign strategist based in Mobile, said both Burdette and Odle have shown a knack for effective grassroots campaigning. He said the two candidates, in a previous era, would struggle to amass more than 2% of the overall vote during a statewide race. But he said in the age of social media, the candidates have the ability to get their names and messaging spread to a larger audience.
“I’ve been impressed by the down ballot candidates that have made some connectivity,” said Gray.
Regina Warner, an assistant professor of political sciences at the University of Alabama, said that part of that connectivity for Burdette is because of his focus on issues not being discussed by the frontrunners – education, prison reform, mental health, safety, and healthcare.
“Lew Burdette is interesting because he seems to be running a campaign explicitly trying to avoid nationalization,” said Warner. “If that propelled him enough to make a runoff, that would certainly tell us something about voters’ appetite for a focus on local issues.”
Wagner, like others, does not anticipate Burdette pushing into runoff territory. But she said if he were able to ‘pull it off, it would be a big enough surprise that it might shift some campaign priorities.”
Quin Hillyer, a conservative senior columnist and editor for the Washington Examiner, said he doesn’t view Burdette and Odle as “spoilers,” but their presence “does make it more likely, arithmetically and logically” that Ivey would be forced into a runoff.
“Sometimes I don’t understand what voters are looking for,” said Hillyer. “It makes no sense that Alabama voters seem to reward the garbage so many candidates hurl their way, rather than demanding real substance. That said, I do sense a late but growing frustration with how awful so many of the gubernatorial campaigns have been, which is why, I think, there is at least a mini-surge for Lew Burdette, who is actually talking about state issues.”
Burdette’s campaign website lays his position on the issues, and he’s citing statistics that shows Alabama’s languishing national rankings in education, healthcare and its No. 1 rating in 2018 for the rate of opioid prescriptions.
Burdette is also offering some ideas that include eliminating Common Core and evaluate the potential for reorganizing “enormous-sized school districts.”
Burdette’s wife, Suzie, is a registered nurse who is a healthcare consultant. If elected governor, Burdette said the couple would form a task force consisting of frontline healthcare professionals to tackle problems the state has with healthcare, particularly with struggling rural healthcare systems that have seen hospital closures. Burdette’s website provides the statistic: Since 2005, Alabama ranks No. 10 in the U.S. with the most rural hospital closures.
He also has other plans, including campaign finance reform that would include require more transparency from donors. His campaign slogan is “Alabama Deserves Better.”
Burdette is touting that he has self-imposed $10,000 contribution limits, and campaign disclosure forms with the Secretary of State’s Office show that he’s benefited mostly with contributions from individuals and businesses. He’s raised $645,660 during the campaign, which is more than most of the other candidates in the race but is a far cry from the nearly $9 million raised by Ivey and $3.8 million by James. Blanchard has mostly self-financed her campaign.
“I do think that Burdette is the candidate that if he had adequate money to compete and advertise his message, and had enough money for a megaphone, he’d be a viable candidate today,” said Brown.
Burdette said people he is speaking to on the campaign trail are simply “tired” of big-money donors and political action committees muscling their way into the race and funneling money to support the onslaught of TV and radio ads.
He said the $10,000 contribution limit does not make the race a “level playing field” for him. But he said it is a path he’d rather take.