No Sweet Home Alabama in Two Races

Posted July 16, 2008 at 6:29pm

After Alabama Republicans decided two runoff contests Tuesday night, party operatives on both sides of the aisle immediately began gearing up for tough general election battles in a couple of Cotton State Congressional seats that will be closely watched this fall.

In the northern Alabama 5th district of retiring Rep. Bud Cramer (D), commercial insurance broker Wayne Parker wrapped up the GOP nomination over Huntsville attorney Cheryl Baswell Guthrie on Tuesday after coming fewer than 500 votes away from accomplishing that task in the regular June primary.

Parker trounced Guthrie in the runoff, 79 percent to 21 percent.

Now Parker will have to face state Sen. Parker Griffith, a conservative Democrat who easily won his own June primary, in the general election.

Although Cramer has held the seat with relative ease, the conservative Southern district is considered one of the House GOP’s best pickup opportunities of the cycle.

Democrats are clearly hoping to sell Griffith to voters as a candidate cut from the same mold as Cramer, who was popular in his district and served nine terms in the House. In fact, the only times Cramer ever faced a real test in the general election was in 1994, when he won with 50 percent of the vote, and in 1996, when he took 56 percent. In both of those races, Cramer’s opponent was Parker.

After Parker secured the GOP nomination again Tuesday, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Kyra Jennings said party officials remain confident that Griffith will keep the 5th district in the Democratic column because he and Cramer share so many of the same beliefs. Griffith, who supports gun rights and opposes abortion rights, has already been endorsed by the Blue Dog Coalition of fiscally conservative Democrats, a group that Cramer helped form.

“The voters of Alabama’s 5th district are looking for someone to carry on Congressman Cramer’s tradition of independent, effective representation,” Jennings said. Meanwhile, “Wayne Parker is continuing to push the same partisan ideas that failed him in his unsuccessful runs in both 1994 and 1996.”

But Republicans feel that they have a real opportunity in a seat located deep in the heart of Dixie, where the GOP has consistently outperformed Democrats in presidential elections.

“Bud Cramer was a true Southern Democrat, and because of that he was able to successfully hold on to his seat despite the Republican realignment that took hold in the South by 1994,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain said on Wednesday. “Despite his conservative claims to the contrary, what Parker Griffith doesn’t want voters to know is that he has been a closet supporter of liberals like [Democratic National Committee Chairman] Howard Dean and even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid” (D-Nev.).

On Wednesday, Parker’s campaign sent out a press release blasting Griffith for accepting large donations from the political action committees of “the most liberal leaders in Congress.”

But Alabama-based Democratic pollster John Anzalone said that if Republicans resort to trying to win in the South by simply linking the Democratic candidate to more liberal national party leaders, then they haven’t learned the lessons of their devastating special election losses this spring in Louisiana and Mississippi.

“When it comes to this guilt-by-association stuff, I think in the South voters see through it as long as [Republicans] don’t have anything issue-wise to back it,” Anzalone said. “If you’re pro-life and pro-Second Amendment and fiscally conservative and pro-economy, it’s tough” to make those ties stick.

Griffith begins the general election in a better financial position than Parker. As of June 30, Griffith had about $352,000 on hand while Parker had less than $75,000 remaining after his primary and runoff battles.

The other special election Tuesday took place in the southeast Alabama 2nd district, where state Rep. Jay Love (R) beat state Sen. Harri Anne Smith (R) in the race to replace retiring Rep. Terry Everett (R). Love held off a late Smith surge and ended up winning 53 percent to 47 percent.

Love will now face well-known Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright, who Democrats have touted as one of their best recruits in the South, in the general election.

Bright, who was actually recruited by party operatives on both sides of the aisle before choosing to run as a Democrat, begins the general election campaign with more cash on hand than Love.

As of June 30, Bright had about $281,000 in cash on hand. Meanwhile, after battling it out with Smith in the runoff, Love had just $91,000 on hand at the end of June. However, after loaning his campaign $650,000 during the primary, Love isn’t seen as a candidate who has to worry too much about fundraising.

Democrats said Wednesday that Love’s biggest disadvantage in the general election will be having to deal with the fallout from a runoff race that got so nasty that Everett himself stepped off the sidelines and pleaded for the two candidates to take down their attack ads and change their negative tone.

For the most part, Love and Smith complied with Everett’s pleas, but some Republicans on Capitol Hill wondered Wednesday whether a few late negative mailers from Smith helped contribute to a closer-than-expected runoff result.

“It’s a good day for Bobby Bright,” said Anzalone, who is working for the Bright campaign this cycle. “Love comes limping out of the primary with high negatives.”

Meanwhile, Democrats will be running a in a race in the South that offers many of the same dynamics of the Louisiana and Mississippi special elections — where Anzalone also worked on the campaigns that brought Reps. Travis Childers (D-Miss.) and Don Cazayoux (D-La.) to Congress.

“The Childers and Cazayoux races really led the way for people like Bright,” Anzalone said. The 2nd district has a 29 percent African-American population that Democrats will rely on to come out in force during the general election.

“Bright is a guy who kind of defies party [label]. He’s conservative, he’s pro-life, he’s pro-Second Amendment.” Anzalone said. “It’s going to be a really good race,”

But Spain said that the party will be unified heading into the fall and that Bright’s track record in Montgomery will hurt him at the polls.

“Now that Republicans nominated an incredibly strong candidate in Jay Love, there will be even more pressure on Bobby Bright to defend his long record of higher taxes and escalating homicide rates,” Spain said.