After a string of painful special election loses this spring, House Republican leaders have made a concerted effort to flex their political muscle more in late primary races, and Alabamas 2nd district runoff next week presents one of the first real tests of how effective those efforts have been.
But over the past six weeks, the battle between state Rep. Jay Love who last month earned the backing of national party leaders and state Sen. Harri Anne Smith has become so negative that some Republicans are now worried that regardless of which candidate emerges from the July 15 runoff, he or she may be permanently damaged.
On Tuesday, retiring Rep. Terry Everett (R), who has stayed neutral throughout the primary race for his Montgomery and southeast Alabama-based seat, called on both candidates to take down their negative ads and end the intraparty split that has developed.
The tone of the runoff campaign for the 2nd District Congressional seat has taken a highly negative and unacceptable path, Everett said in a statement. Our country is facing crucial turning points and the issues confronting America and the people of the 2nd District should take precedence over the attack ads, thinly disguised as comparison ads, that are being aired by both candidates.
Everett, who has held the seat for eight terms, asked both campaigns to focus on the issues and behave in a manner that reflects well on our party, our state, and most importantly, the people we represent.
Along with charges of flip-flopping on various state legislative issues, one thing the two candidates have fought over is Loves support in Washington, D.C. Alabama Republican consultant Jeff Vreeland said that while Loves campaign has been touting his big-name support, Smiths campaign has been painting Love as the D.C. person.
Smiths camp is saying that Love is the person who traditional D.C. politicians want, Vreeland said. Shes running the other way and saying, Im not the usual politician.
But the tone of the runoff could have consequences for November.
Craig Schmidtke, a Dothan oral surgeon who came in third place in the June GOP primary, said Tuesday that Love and Smith are on the verge of driving voters to the Democratic Party with their continued sniping at each other in ads and in news releases.
Its getting very ugly and very muddy, and people are just really honestly very fed up, said Schmidtke, who garnered 20 percent of the primary vote but hasnt endorsed either candidate in the runoff. Ive had many, many people who are die-hard Republicans who have told me personally that they are thinking about voting Democrat for the first time ever. Im saddened that its come to this.
Since Everetts retirement announcement last fall, the 2nd district has become a focus of Democrats in the South who are determined to flip this conservative district with a large black population into their column. National Democrats have hailed conservative Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright who faced token opposition in the Democratic primary as one of their top recruits of the cycle.
The Republican primary was more of a free-for-all featuring several candidates with deep pockets.
Love, who throughout the primary contest was the most active candidate on television, was the top performer, earning 35 percent of the vote in the six-way race. He ran up large margins in and around the Montgomery to easily make the runoff.
Meanwhile, though she is well-funded and was the best-known candidate from the southeast portion of the district, Smith just barely took second place. She earned 22 percent to edge out Schmidtke, who cut into her wiregrass base.
After the primary, national Republican leaders decided to step off the sidelines and make it clear that they preferred that Love carry the party mantle this fall.
GOP leaders including House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.) hosted a Love fundraiser in Washington, D.C., late last month and both men, along with Chief Deputy Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.), have cut Loves campaign $5,000 checks in the past two weeks.
And while the official stance of the NRCC this cycle has been to stay out of GOP primaries, NRCC spokesman Ken Spain on Tuesday was happy to discuss the strengths that Love would bring to a general election campaign.
Jay Loves record of cutting taxes and creating jobs will make him a formidable candidate in the general election, Spain said.
When House leaders decided to come out for Love last month, there was some speculation that the move would put them at odds with the powerful anti-tax group the Club for Growth, which endorsed Smith in the spring. The Club for Growth and the NRCC have been on opposite sides of more than one GOP primary race in past cycles, and in a few of those races the two groups have spent enormous sums of money battling for their preferred candidates.
But though the Club for Growth endorsed Smith in April, the group hasnt dumped massive amounts of money into the race in the form of independent expenditures a tactic the group often uses with its most important candidates.
We still think Harri Ann Smith is more conservative than Jay Love, but we also have other races, Club for Growth spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik said Tuesday. We dont do [independent expenditures] in every race and this is one of them where we didnt. Given our resources, we made a decision about where we were going to spend our money.
But its not like Smiths campaign has been desperate for money. According to her pre-runoff Federal Election Commission report, Smith has raised $878,000 for her campaign, including $374,000 in personal loans. She had a little more than $100,000 in cash on hand at the end of June.
Love is also extremely well-funded. Hes raised more than $1 million, with $650,000 of that coming from his own pocket. He reported $164,000 in cash on hand at the end of June.