The story of Griffith's political peregrinations is not just his story—it's also the tale of what's happened to conservative Democrats across the Deep South. Griffith once appeared to symbolize a resurgent Democratic Party in the region; Alabama sent him and two other Democrats, Bobby Bright and Artur Davis, to Washington in 2008, joining Blue Dogs from Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi in swelling the coalition to 54 members, a record high. Two years later, after the 2010 Republican wave, half the Blue Dogs were gone, including all three of the Alabamians. (Today only three Deep South Democrats remain in the coalition, which was cut approximately in half again in 2012.) The former Blue Dogs haven't lost their lust for office, but they now inhabit a kind of political wilderness, eschewed by Democrats as too far right and by Republicans as too far left. "They're so middle-of-the-road," Bright says, "that they don't fit either party."
"Blue Dogs—heh," Griffith says. "They'll have to put them in the Smithsonian."
Griffith found out the hard way. Republicans in Washington crowed about flipping the Democrat to their side, of course, but Griffith says he wasn't prepared for what awaited him back home. "I got back to Alabama, and Democrats hated me and Republicans said I was a RINO." He lost the GOP primary by nearly 20 points. He tried again in 2012 and lost by almost double that margin. In both races, he was haunted by his 2009 vote for Nancy Pelosi for House speaker.
In 2013, Griffith dropped his party affiliation entirely, telling a local paper, "I've been in both parties, I've seen them up close and personal. Neither one of them are worth a damn." Just a few months later, though, he approached state Democratic leaders about rejoining their ranks; Griffith says he made his decision when Bentley turned down federal funds for Medicaid expansion. The party's executive committee blessed Griffith's return. Soon after, he was running for governor.
Griffith's ability to finance his own campaign no doubt looked attractive to a state party that could certainly use some benefactors. Like other Deep South Democratic parties, Alabama's has fallen on lean times in recent years, left rudderless after former Gov. Don Siegelman was sent to prison on controversial corruption charges in 2006. Last year, the party's state chairwoman reported that the Democrats' landlord and utility companies wanted the party out of its headquarters because of unpaid bills. (Bit by bit, the party has worked through its debts; Griffith helped out with a $2,400 contribution this spring.) Meanwhile, the broke—and broken—party is fighting with itself, riven by factions. "Literally," Davis says, "what you have now is a few groups fighting over who's going to be captain of the Titanic."
Not surprisingly, Griffith waxes a bit more upbeat. "We have the high side of the issues," he says of Alabama Democrats. Along with calling for a lottery to support public education, Griffith has spent much of the campaign hammering Bentley for his refusal to expand Medicaid, which could add as many as a quarter-million low-income Alabamians to the rolls, according to a White House study. "I was there the night the Affordable Care Act passed," Griffith says, studiously avoiding the law's widely used nickname. "I'm a cancer specialist by training, and I knew it was a confusing, bad bill. But there were things in the Affordable Care Act that were good. Staying on parents' health insurance and expanding Medicaid were part of that, and I believe it has to happen in Alabama."