Urban v. Rural
Alabama Senate Election Result
Kevin H. Posey
Set aside for just a moment the partisan aspects and implications of last night’s Alabama Senate election victory for the Democrat, Doug Jones, over the Republican nominee, Roy Moore, and consider how it reflects on the longstanding tensions between rural and urban interests in the United States. These tensions date back to the founding of the republic, with Thomas Jefferson advocating for an agrarian democracy, while it could fairly be argued that Alexander Hamilton represented urban interests with his focus on a central bank that would fuel industry.
With this in mind, take a look at Alabama’s county results. Check out how the largest counties (with the highest precinct count) voted. There’s nothing unusual about the fact that they diverge from smaller, more rural counties. What is unusual is that, this time, they prevailed.
|Results courtesy of AL.com|
Essentially, even in one of the lesser-urbanized regions in the US, the political power of the city is starting to be felt. One cannot help but wonder if this is a trend that might play out in 2018 in more urban regions. If the cities are on the political ascent, this will have tremendous implications for transportation priorities in the US.
How? Well, highways are often used as a means to encourage economic growth in rural areas. The extension of Interstate 69 in Indiana (and eventually to Texas) is one such example. Or, they are often built to facilitate development in former agricultural areas outside of the city—also known as suburban sprawl.
Highways today are seldom built or expanded to benefit city residents. In fact, they are often fought for their destructive impacts on neighborhoods and the health of nearby residents. Opposition to the plan to drastically widen I-70 through the heart of Denver is reflective of this. So, if cities are growing in power, how likely is the funding spigot for road construction to stay open?
Birmingham, the largest city in Alabama, has had considerable trouble funding its transit system. At one point, city employees had to forego a raise just so it could stay in operation. Federal funding for such systems is often crucial, but Alabama’s Senators were elected primarily via support outside of the cities. But if you look at last night’s results, Jefferson County, wherein Birmingham lies, turned out for Senator-elect Doug Jones. One would imagine that he would be motivated to advocate for federal transit dollars to reward the constituents who gave him his narrow victory.
Now consider what happens if the scenario in Alabama plays out across the country in 2018. Keep an eye on Senate race competitiveness rankings via the independent Cook Political Report.
As we went into last night, it showed the Alabama seat as a toss-up. Seven other seats carry that ranking (shown as state-current occupant):
Indiana- Donnelly Arizona- Flake
Missouri- McCaskill Nevada- Heller
West Virginia- Manchin Tennessee- Corker
Indiana, Missouri, Minnesota, Arizona, and Nevada all have large, urban centers comprising their electorate. If the Alabama scenario were to repeat, that could yield a pickup of three Senate seats for Democrats. All of the victors would likely owe their jobs to city voters. Greater funding for transit and complete streets projects, coupled with an overall de-emphasis of single occupant vehicles, is not out of the question.
The 2018 election is still a year off, and much can (and will) occur between now and then. But those with an interest in transportation and urban policy would do well to take heed of how the political winds are starting to blow.