Dark money is here to stay in Alabama’s Republican primary: What else can the AEA do?

“Did I vote for the right people?”

I asked my four-year old daughter that question last week as we sat inside a sanctuary-turned-polling station in Madison County. I showed her the ballot as her two-year old sister ran around the room impatiently waiting on us to finish “coloring” the paper. I pointed out the headliners – governor, lieutenant governor, etc. – and explained who I was voting for, and why.

Then we looked at the down ballot races, full of unfamiliar candidates and barely recognizable districts. I usually vote for a challenger if I don’t know the incumbent. It’s not a very sophisticated way of picking a candidate, but it’s my personal term-limit measure for inactive officeholders who aren’t very visible. But I wasn’t so sure this time.

“Don’t you know?” asked my daughter.

Normally, I would, or at least a mistake wouldn’t matter much. The Republican Primary used to be full of conservatives, of varying degrees. But this year’s primary was different. So-called “dark money” from liberal organizations like the Alabama Education Association, it was said, had seeped into the Republican Primary. Liberal candidates were masquerading as conservatives across the state.

“There’re a few sneaky people on this paper, trying to trick your papa,” I told her. She smiled, and the boring piece of paper suddenly became a little more interesting and mysterious.

The whole election season was a bit mysterious, in fact. Charges were made that liberals had funneled money to an organization called the Alabama Foundation for Limited Government. The foundation then passed money to something called the Stop Common Core political action committee, which then funded primary challengers to Republicans who were at odds with the groups like the teachers union.

Hard to follow? That’s because many think it’s supposed to be, complete with conservative-sounding groups used to mask their liberal supporters.

Former state lawmaker John Rice started the Alabama Foundation for Limited Government, and has repeatedly denied requests to disclose its donors. He did say the AEA wasn’t among them, though.

Republicans believe otherwise. “This group, working hand-in-hand with AEA and Obama’s ad agency, is playing a shell game,” said House Speaker Mike Hubbard in April. “They are desperate to hide the liberal sources funding their false attacks.”

Money was passed. Ads were bought, and phrases like “Stop Common Core” and “Conservative Values” were everywhere. Who were we supposed to believe? In the end, both sides say they won a little, or a lot, in last week’s primary.

Regardless of the spin, most say it was a disaster for the teachers union after it spent nearly $7-million and only won a handful of minor races. Conservatives were gleeful, and predicted that the AEA’s strategy of infiltrating the Republican Primary was over.

“Hopefully this will send a message to Henry Mabry and the AEA and others that it’s not going to work,” Hubbard said.

But what else are they going to do? The label “Democrat” has become almost toxic in parts of Alabama, and the state’s Democrat Party has fractured into two camps competing for money and followers. If the AEA and other groups want influence, the Republican Primary is the only game in town.

This cycle may have been a tactical defeat for the AEA – phony messaging, poor candidates, and a weak ground-game – but it may not have been a strategic blunder. The AEA isn’t about to run out of money, and it’s not about to go away. They’ll learn, and they’ll probably be back to compete in the next Republican Primary. Dark money will abound.

Meanwhile, conservative groups in Alabama should ready themselves by preparing simple, effective and consistent ways to educate Republican Primary voters about the next crop of “dark money” candidates. They’re here to stay.

Back at my polling place, I broke my rule and voted for unfamiliar incumbents, fearing I would inadvertently toss a vote to an AEA-backed challenger. As we walked away, I asked my daughter again if we picked the right people.

“I don’t know,” she said. She stopped, placed a finger to her lip and furrowed her brow. “I think so.” She skipped down the sidewalk. “Yeah, we did.”

I hope so; because her guess was as good as mine.

(J. Pepper Bryars grew up in Mobile and is now a writer living in Huntsville. Contact him at jpepperbryars@gmail.com and jpepperbryars.com.)