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GOP Bullish in Two Alabama Districts

Two recent developments in a pair of Alabama Congressional districts controlled by Democratic freshmen have state and national Republicans excited about the prospect of a double Republican pickup deep in the heart of Dixie.

With GOP candidates now in both races, the party’s efforts to capture those seats are officially under way.

The more heralded of the two recruits was Montgomery City Councilwoman Martha Roby (R), who filed last week to challenge Rep. Bobby Bright (D) in the 2nd district.

Roby was heavily courted by National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) this cycle despite the fact that state Rep. Jay Love — the man the committee dropped nearly $600,000 in independent expenditures on last cycle — hasn’t ruled out running again.

More under the radar is the candidacy of Navy veteran Lester Phillip, who was the first GOP candidate to file in the northern Alabama 5th district of Rep. Parker Griffith (D).

Phillip, who is black and the son of immigrant parents, works as the minority outreach director for the state Republican Party. He was making the rounds on Capitol Hill last week and has also begun to make a name for himself at local Tea Party events and other conservative gatherings.

Despite the fact that the 2nd and 5th districts are areas where Republican candidates regularly dominate in presidential elections, Roby and Phillip have steep hills to climb in 2010.

Both Bright and Griffith have worked hard to establish their images as conservative Democrats who aren’t afraid to vote against their party’s leadership. Both are members of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, and each has established voting records that are more conservative than many card-carrying Republicans.

But Republican operatives say Bright and Griffith have already failed their constituents when it comes to the the vote that will matter most on the campaign trail in 2010.

“Before this race even starts, there is one very clear distinction between these two very qualified Republican candidates and their respective Democrat opponents —Martha Roby and Lester Phillip will never vote to anoint Nancy Pelosi the Speaker of the House as Bobby Bright and Parker Griffith did on their first day on the job,— NRCC spokesman Ken Spain said last week. “By doing so, they gave her a blank check to spend on trillions of dollars in wasteful spending and a platform to attack the CIA and undercut our military men and women fighting overseas.—

But Alabama-based Democratic consultant John Anzalone said that line of attack is a weak one.

“I’ve never seen any candidate, Democratic or Republican, lose based on their vote for Speaker,— Anzalone said. “It’s are you vulnerable on taxes, are you vulnerable on spending, are you vulnerable on social issues? That’s the big deal down here.—

From a strategic standpoint, Bright has the tougher district for a Democrat to hold.

Before Bright, Republican Rep. Terry Everett had easily held the 2nd district for eight terms, and GOP operatives continue to believe that the seat would still be in Republican hands if not for the combination of a debilitating GOP primary in 2008 and the fact that the candidacy of President Barack Obama helped boost Democratic turnout among the district’s 29 percent black population.

This cycle, it’s possible that the 2010 gubernatorial campaign of Rep. Artur Davis (D), who is black, may provide another bump when it comes to Democratic-leaning African-American turnout in the 2nd district next year.

But that may not be Republicans’ biggest problem when it comes to retaking the 2nd district.

Love got caught up in a nasty GOP primary fight last cycle with state Sen. Harri Anne Smith, and the conflict turned into a regional battle between the city of Montgomery and the rural southeast Wiregrass parts of the district. And though he emerged victorious from the primary, Love’s campaign had to start the general election from scratch financially. Meanwhile, Smith went on to endorse Bright, who, along with having served as mayor of Montgomery, has roots in the Wiregrass.

Love campaign manager Michael Lowry said that in 2010, district Republicans will have to set aside regional differences if they have any hope of knocking off Bright, who won by less than 2,000 votes in a district that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won by 26 points in the presidential race.

“As close as it was during the 2008 cycle it’s likely to be that close again,— Lowry said. “In order for a Republican to prevail this time in the district, Republicans are going to have to unite behind one candidate early so that they can marshal the money and the resources that it’s going to take to beat Bobby Bright.—

Roby said her first priority since filing has been to work with state and national officials to try to stave off another primary battle.

“We’ve asked for as much help as we can to clear the field,— she said, noting that one GOP primary candidate from 2008, Montgomery-based state Rep. David Grimes, has pledged his support to her campaign.

Farther north in the 5th district, Republicans operatives say they are itching for another shot at Griffith, who they believe has serious personal failures that can be exploited on the campaign trail.

During Griffith’s 2008 campaign, the toughest attacks he faced from Republicans focused on his record from his days as a doctor at Huntsville Hospital. Republican nominee Wayne Parker, along with state and national groups, alleged that Griffith undertreated cancer patients while working as a radiation oncologist at the hospital in the mid-1980s in an effort to increase profits.

But Phillip said Parker lost the open-seat contest because he got too caught up in the nastiness of that 2008 campaign. He said he plans to offer voters a conservative alternative to Griffith rather than focusing on tearing down the Congressman.

“They ran a negative campaign too long,— Phillip said. “You just can’t be negative to be negative. That drives people into the other guy’s camp. And if he’s telling his story you’re going to lose. Which is what happened.—

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