- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 5, 2014

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Republican Robert Bentley easily won re-election as governor on Tuesday, defeating Democratic challenger Parker Griffith and demonstrating the dominance of the GOP in Alabama.

Bentley polled more than three-fifths of the votes in nearly complete returns and posted the biggest winning percentage of any modern-day Republican governor in Alabama. He topped a ticket that saw Republicans win every office elected statewide and maintain their control of all three branches of state government.

Bentley said his victory stemmed more from his personal relationship with voters than from his policies. The former Tuscaloosa physician used his low-key bedside manner to start building that relationship in his 2010 campaign, and he said he strengthened it with the state’s recovery from deadly tornadoes in 2011 and his visits to a different Alabama town nearly every week.

“The people feel that we care about them. That relationship we’ve developed over the last four or five years has really paid off,” he said in an election-night interview.

Democrats haven’t won a gubernatorial election in the state since Don Siegelman was elected in 1998.

Griffith said he was hurt by entering the race during the last hour for candidates to qualify after other prominent Democrats, including former Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr., decided not to run. He said he was also hurt by Bentley’s refusal to debate and by Republicans successfully tying him to an unpopular president.

“This election was nationalized. This was more about President Obama than me. This was more about the national Democratic Party than a Southern Democrat,” Griffith said in Huntsville.

Bentley acknowledged that he and other Republicans were helped by voters’ unhappiness with the president and Democratic policies in Washington.

“The Democratic Party is in trouble, especially in Alabama,” he said.

Bentley, 71, was a two-term state representative when he left his Tuscaloosa dermatology practice to make a long-shot run for governor in 2010. He underwrote his own campaign and ran on a job creation platform, telling voters he wouldn’t take a salary as governor until unemployment dropped to 5.2 percent.

He campaigned for re-election on lowering the unemployment rate from 9.1 percent when he took office in January 2011 to 6.6 percent in September and announcing 60,000 new jobs since taking office, including an Airbus assembly plant for Mobile.

Bentley’s decision not to take a paycheck and his focus on the state’s economy got him a vote from George Chapman, a 47-year-old small businessman from Montgomery. “He’s slowly upticked the economy. He’s given us great leadership for the last four years,” Chapman said.

Several voters said they knew little about Griffith and saw no need for replacing Bentley in the governor’s office. “He’s done good work for Alabama, and I want it to stay that way,” said John Pratz, a 67-year-old Air Force retiree from Montgomery.

Bentley raised nearly $6.8 million in campaign donations, giving him a 10-to-1 advantage over Griffith.

Griffith, 72, was a cancer physician in Huntsville before serving two years in the state Senate and then being elected to the U.S. House in 2008 as a Democrat. He switched parties in 2009 and lost the Republican primary in 2010. He switched back to the Democratic Party and made a late entry in the governor’s race.

Griffith said his late entry hampered fundraising, but he pumped more than $500,000 of his own money into the campaign to portray Bentley as “a failed governor.” Griffith pointed out that Alabama’s unemployment rate remains above the national average, funding for public schools is below its pre-recession level, and Alabama’s overcrowded prison system is at risk of a federal takeover.

Griffith campaigned on a platform similar to Bentley’s Democratic opponent in 2010, Ron Sparks. He advocated expanding Medicaid under the federal health care law and creating a state lottery to pay for college scholarships and enlarge the state’s pre-kindergarten program.

Ronald Marlow, a 43-year-old Montgomery hospital employee, said he voted for Griffith because of Bentley’s refusal to expand Medicaid.

“If he would do that, it would help people. Instead of putting politics first, you should put people first,” he said.

Jason Shifferd, a 28-year-old English composition teacher from Montgomery, said he doesn’t gamble but was attracted by Griffith’s lottery stance.

“People are going to Florida and Georgia to spend money on lotteries that are being used to support their schools. That money could be used here,” he said.

Griffith said he plans to remain active in politics and continue to push for Medicaid expansion and a state lottery.

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