Ala. Race Next Test of Party-Switch Survival

Posted May 24, 2010 at 6:22pm

In one week, former Democratic Rep. Parker Griffith will face Alabama voters for the first time as a Republican. The election comes exactly two weeks after Democratic primary voters rejected this cycle’s higher-profile party-switcher, Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.).

The significance of Specter’s defeat has not been lost on Griffith’s two GOP challengers, Madison County Commissioner Mo Brooks and businessman and Navy veteran Les Phillip. Both view it as a good omen and indication that this cycle’s anti-incumbent mood cuts across party lines.

But unlike in Pennsylvania, the party switch isn’t exactly taking center stage in the final days of the primary.

The reason for that has as much to do with Brooks’ and Phillip’s campaign strategies as it does with Griffith’s desire not to be painted as a politician who changed sides simply to save his own job.

In his first two campaign ads, which were launched district-wide on broadcast TV on Monday, Brooks talks about the larger theme of trust but does not specifically mention Griffith’s Dec. 22 party switch.

“I think trust is a major issue,” Brooks said on Monday. “Party-switching is a component of trust, but there’s so many different things we didn’t want to limit to one issue. … There are a dozen different flip-flops Parker Griffith has engaged in.”

Phillip said that, as a newcomer to elected politics, he’s focused on trying in his ads to introduce himself and explain his vision to primary voters.

“If you keep banging on that [party-switching] drum people are going to say, ‘Don’t you have anything else to talk about?'” he said.

In an ad set to be released on broadcast television later this week, Phillip, who is black, discusses his desire to get to Washington to stand up to President Barack Obama, adding that “they’re not going to call me a racist.” That ad caused a bit of a stir on Monday when a Web version included an altered picture of Obama smoking a cigarette. Phillip said he didn’t know the picture had been altered and said he planned to re-edit the ad before running it.

Another reason the party switch hasn’t become the central issue of the campaign may simply be that, unlike in the Pennsylvania race, a video hasn’t surfaced where the Congressman admits to switching parties to increase his chances of being elected.

Griffith said in a statement Monday that he feels good about where his campaign stands heading into the final week.

“I do not think voters in Alabama are influenced at all by elections in other states or are reacting to any national message,” Griffith said. “This is a campaign about which of the three Republican candidates has the best record of creating jobs and fighting for our shared conservative values, and that is a race I am confident I can win.”

With a week to go, Brooks and Phillip are clearly playing for the chance to make a July 13 runoff with Griffith.

A candidate can win the nomination outright on Tuesday with a simple majority of the primary vote. If that doesn’t happen, the top two finishers go to a runoff.

Most observers believe Brooks has the best shot to take Griffith to a runoff. Although Phillip entered the contest before Brooks, earned some early excitement from national party officials and more than doubled Brooks’ receipts for the cycle, Brooks appears better positioned in the final stage of the campaign.

As of May 12, Brooks had more than $150,000 in cash on hand to finish the race, while Phillip had less than $10,000.

A key endorsement for Brooks came in late March when 2008 5th district Republican nominee Wayne Parker bucked the national party establishment, who have accepted Griffith as one of their own, and threw his support behind Brooks.

Griffith’s lone attack ad has targeted Brooks, and national Democratic Party officials are starting to focus on Brooks when they talk about the 5th district race, a sure sign they believe he may have a realistic shot of knocking off Griffith.

Still, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Griffith came in first place next week due to Brooks and Phillip splitting the anti-incumbent vote.

Brooks acknowledged that Phillip would likely take more votes away from him than from the Congressman, but he was also confident that Griffith doesn’t have the votes to win Tuesday or on July 13.

“There are two votes out there,” Brooks explained. “One is the anybody but Parker Griffith vote, and the other is the Parker Griffith vote. Under no circumstances does the Parker Griffith vote equal 50 percent plus one, so Parker Griffith has no path to victory.”

Brooks said his campaign is already preparing for the runoff by holding back “a significant sum” of money to be used in that contest. He didn’t put an exact total on the amount but said it was in the six-figure range.

He’ll likely need that to be heard over Griffith, who has outspent Brooks nearly 10-to-1 this cycle and had dished out more than a quarter million dollars on media buys as of May 12. Griffith had a little more than $214,000 in cash on hand at that time, but he also has a personal fortune he can dip into if he needs it. Late financial reports show the Congressman loaned his campaign $75,000 on Saturday.