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Democrats Can’t Start a Fire Without a Sparks

Alabama has been off national Democrats’ radar screen for so long that most Washington, D.C., party leaders would be hard-pressed to name many Democrats in the Yellowhammer State. [IMGCAP(1)]

They know Rep. Artur Davis (D), a rising star in Congress and a potential statewide candidate sometime in the future. There’s Rep. Bud Cramer (D), who easily holds on to his Huntsville-area seat despite its conservative lean. And they may remember former wunderkind Gov. Jim Folsom Jr. (D), who launched a political comeback last year and was narrowly elected lieutenant governor.

But Democratic leaders in Alabama think their time in the wilderness may end this election cycle. All it will take to build a Democratic bonfire, they believe, is Sparks — specifically, Ron Sparks (D), the state’s commissioner of agriculture, who is seriously weighing a challenge to Sen. Jeff Sessions (R).

In his bid for a second term last year, Sparks captured 59 percent of the vote, winning 62 of 67 counties in the process. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is leaning hard on him to take on Sessions, and Alabama insiders believe Sparks could jump in the race as early as next month.

“He has a grass-roots network and good name identification and a lot of support in the Republican base — without betraying his Democratic roots,” said Alabama Democratic Party Chairman Joe Turnham. “I think there’s a sense that if he runs, he could be another [Sen. Jim] Webb [D-Va.] or [Sen. Jon] Tester [D-Mont.].”

Republicans agree that Sparks would be an appealing challenger, but they aren’t willing to concede that Sessions, who took 59 percent of the vote when he won a second term in 2002, is vulnerable.

“I think you have to take that very seriously,” said one Alabama GOP strategist. “It depends on how much money would come in on the national level. [Sparks] would be their best shot, but I still think he’d have to be considered a long shot.”

Jeff Vreeland, publisher of the Web site, predicted that a Sessions-Sparks race “is going to pull some attention to Alabama on the national front,” even though he believes the Senator has the money and organization to fend off any challenge.

Still, Turnham hopes a statewide Sparks bid spreads like wildfire and helps

other Democratic Congressional candidates next year.

The Democrats may attempt to target Rep. Mike Rogers (R), who won his Montgomery-area seat by just 2 points in 2002 — over Turnham — but hasn’t had to sweat re-election since. Democrats in Alabama and Washington also hold out the hope that Rep. Terry Everett (R), who is 70, may choose to retire, though there isn’t much evidence to suggest that will happen.

Turnham said Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright (D) could be a viable House candidate in either Rogers’ 3rd district or Everett’s 2nd, which also straddles Montgomery. And he said that Sparks, should he forgo the Senate race, could be a strong candidate in either the 3rd district, where he lives now, or in Rep. Robert Aderholt’s (R) 4th district in the northern part of the state, where he grew up.

Thinking about the Congressional playing field, Turnham has big dreams. Yet he concedes that if Democrats can recruit just one major challenger into the Senate race or a House race, that will count as progress.

But Republicans’ chances of building on their 5-2 advantage in the House delegation are slim. Davis’ 7th district, which takes in most of Birmingham, parts of Tuscaloosa and the state’s Black Belt — a reference to the soil, not the population — is a Democratic stronghold. And Republicans confess they are unlikely to take a serious run at Cramer’s seat until he retires (he was unopposed for a ninth term last year and is unlikely to go anywhere now that Democrats are in the majority).

“I think there are some wonderful potential [Republican] candidates in the Huntsville area,” the GOP strategist said. “Cramer is seen as really entrenched. He’s able to satisfy a lot of Republicans in that area.”

While there will be plenty of political action in Alabama in 2008, most insiders already are looking ahead to 2010, when several statewide officeholders, including Gov. Bob Riley (R), are term-limited. That’s also when Sen. Richard Shelby (R) is up for re-election.

With an eye-popping $11.7 million already in his campaign account, Shelby seems poised to seek a fifth term. But he will be 76 in 2010, so anything is possible then.

An open Senate seat could create a donnybrook in the state. Riley almost certainly would run for the seat, according to insiders, and Davis could well be the Democratic frontrunner. But Sue Cobb Bell (D), the newly elected chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, also would be a viable candidate; Shelby and Sessions’ predecessor, the late Sen. Howell Heflin (D), were both judges before they moved on to the Senate, and Sessions was nominated to the federal bench but was rejected by the Senate.

The vacancy in the governor’s mansion is likely to attract Folsom and possibly Davis or Sparks on the Democratic side. Possible contenders on the Republican side — some of whom also could take a look at an open Senate seat — include state House Minority Leader Mike Hubbard, who doubles as chairman of the state GOP, state Treasurer Kay Ivey and Secretary of State Beth Chapman.

Because Democrats still control both chambers of the Legislature, the 2010 gubernatorial race will be fiercely fought, as both parties look ahead to the next round of redistricting following the 2010 Census.

Roy Moore, the highly controversial former chief justice of the state Supreme Court who unsuccessfully challenged Riley in last year’s Republican primary, is still a force on the political scene, but what his next move is remains unclear.

Perhaps the biggest Republican star these days is Luther Strange, a Birmingham lawyer and Washington lobbyist who fell just short in last year’s general election for lieutenant governor after upsetting former state Treasurer George Wallace Jr. in the GOP primary.

“He’s got friends in Washington. He’s got friends in the state. And he proved he can raise a lot of dollars,” Vreeland said.

Because Davis is seen as the likeliest Member of the state delegation to try for higher office, there already is a line of potential Democratic contenders for his seat when it becomes vacant. The list includes state Sen. Linda Coleman; state Rep. Merika Coleman (no relation); state Rep. Chris England, the son of former judge and civil rights leader John England; state Sen. Bobby Singleton; state Sen. Rodger Smitherman; and Jefferson County Commissioner Sheila Smoot.

The most intriguing name may be that of freshman state Rep. Earl Hilliard Jr. (D), the 38-year-old son of former Rep. Earl Hilliard (D) — the man Davis ousted in a bitterly fought 2002 Democratic primary. So far political insiders see no evidence that the younger Hilliard — who also is a professional filmmaker — is out to avenge his father’s defeat by challenging Davis in a primary. But a run for an open 7th district seat is another matter entirely.

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