A little over three years ago, Davis had been one of the first members of Congress to endorse Obama in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary. At that year’s party convention, Davis, who like Obama was raised by a single mother, graduated from Harvard Law School and became a member of Congress, praised the party’s first African American presidential nominee as the leader of a new era of politics.
Two years later, Davis sought to use that new black leadership brand in his bid to become the first African American governor of Alabama. Positioning himself to the right of his party, he touted his vote against the Affordable Care Act, and in an effort to downplay race, he declined to court some traditional black organizations. Black voters instead backed a white candidate and Davis lost by 24 points.
After that crushing defeat, Davis left the Democratic Party. He quit his House seat and moved to Northern Virginia, where he flirted with the idea of running for Congress as a Republican, ultimately deciding against the idea.
Last year he returned to Alabama and ran in the nonpartisan mayoral race in his hometown, coming in a distant second to the incumbent mayor Todd Strange. Now, he's mulling a run for the Montgomery County Commission -- as a Democrat.
"I have no ill will toward Republicans, and nothing but kind words to say about the many Republicans at every level who welcomed me in 2012,” Davis said when asked if he’d become disillusioned with the GOP.
But he offered “two parting observations” that suggested the party still has an image problem with black voters.
First, he said, “there is a deep distrust of the Republican Party in the black community. It begins with an unease at the ferocity of some of the attacks on Obama, but the discomfort is deeper and more substantive than that. To the average African American, access to healthcare and the safety net is not 'free stuff' or 'socialism'; it is the baseline a fair country embraces.”
Second, he said, the GOP needs “more Colin Powells and Michael Steeles and Condi Rices (thoughtful moderates) on the stage as opposed to black ultra conservatives whose main purpose seems to be to validate that 'right wing' does not equal racism."
This does not mean that he has changed his mind about Obamacare. He said he stands by his vote against the health care law because he still disagrees with some specifics, such as mandates for individuals and businesses. But he generally agrees with expanding healthcare. “Today, I consider ACA to be a settled policy question. I have never favored returning to the world before the ACA existed and have criticized Republicans for wanting to scrap it without an alternative even when I was an active Republican," he said.
He disagrees with Alabama’s decision to reject additional federal dollars to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Similarly, he said last week that although he is not opposed to requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls, he was critical of officials’ decision to close more than two dozen driver license offices, most of them in predominantly poor and black communities.
Alabama has grown increasingly red over the last decade. Republicans hold 25 of the 35 seats in the state senate, and 72 seats in the 105-member state house. As recently as 2006, the Montgomery Advertiser reported, Democrats were the majority in the state legislature.
Davis said he doesn’t see space for him in the GOP party of his home state.
"There is a difference in the ethos of a Deep South state and a more diverse state like Virginia. I am first and foremost a political centrist: in the South, Democrats are more congenial to a moderate while the Republican Party in Alabama has a range from right to far right. For what I believe and the issues I care most about, this choice makes sense.
“I got involved in politics to make government work better, not to make it disappear,” Davis said. “I found a number of Republicans who shared that perspective, but in Alabama, not nearly enough do."