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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

Today’s Alabama primary runoffs feature three nationally significant contests, including one key Democratic and one key Republican congressional nomination battle.

But the marquee match, the GOP gubernatorial runoff between former state senator and two-year college chancellor Bradley Byrne and state representative Dr. Robert Bentley, has turned into a fascinating and unpredictable contest involving unusual alliances, a possible Democratic crossover vote, and some real questions about the priorities of conservatives in one of the country’s most conservative states.

During the first primary round on June 1, Byrne led the field, as expected, with 28% of the vote. But Bentley surprised nearly all observers by edging the well-financed favorite of Tea Party activists, Tim James, by a mere 167 votes (finishing a disappointingly poor fourth was Christian Right icon Judge Roy Moore). Both candidates scored 25%. After a recount requested (and paid for) by James, Bentley’s lead rose to 271 votes, and James conceded.

The recount delayed the beginning of the runoff campaign, but Byrne continued his efforts to make his longstanding battle with the Alabama Education Association (the NEA affiliate in Alabama, which represents the vast majority of teachers in the state, but does not have collective bargaining rights) the centerpiece of the contest.

Byrne had earlier tried to link James to a shadowy organization called the True Republican PAC, which actually received most of its funding from the AEA under Alabama’s exceptionally loose campaign finance rules (which allow PAC-to-PAC transfers), and which ran a series of anti-Byrne ads calling him a “liberal trial lawyer” and questioning his allegedly heterodox views on biblical inerrancy. In the runoff, Byrne has essentially accused Bentley of being an agent of the AEA, whose top two officials are vice-chairmen of the state Democratic Party. Bentley did receive a small contribution from AEA, and has not only refused to join Byrne in demonizing the organization, but has none-too-subtly appealed for its members’ votes. Complicating the campaign immensely has been the Alabama GOP’s unusual practice of allowing Democratic primary voters to cross over and vote in the Republican runoff. With the Democratic gubernatorial primary being resolved on June 1, there’s a definite pool of engaged Democratic voters who could participate in the runoff, along with some precedent (notably in 1998) of Democratic crossover voters having a decisive impact in a GOP runoff.

For his part, Bentley’s runoff campaign continued the upbeat, above-the-fray approach that benefitted him in the primary among voters apparently tired of the attacks and counter-attacks between Byrne and James that dominated the airwaves and media coverage. But he also stressed his strongly conservative views on issues ranging from taxes to abortion to gambling, and while most of the state’s leading GOP elected officials (including Gov. Bob Riley) lined up behind Byrne, Bentley was endorsed by Mike Huckabee (whose presidential candidacy he backed in 2008, and from whom he borrowed key campaign staff after dismissing several of his original operatives). Perhaps more significantly, Bentley was endorsed by the campaign managers for James and Moore.

Byrne has significantly outspent Bentley (who has largely self-financed his campaign) in the runoff, but has also had to contend with another batch of negative ads by a previously unknown “independent” group called the Conservative Coalition for Alabama (suspected but by no means proved to be another AEA project).

The only public poll on the runoff, released on July 7 by the Alabama firm Public Strategy Associates, showed Bentley winning by a decisive 53-33 margin. Byrne has disputed the independence of PSA, and claims his internal polling shows him up by 4 points. Most observers privately predict a close race, with Byrne perhaps building some momentum from his efforts to make the entire campaign pivot on his battles with AEA. But the reality is that turnout will likely determine the outcome. If this is a classic low-turnout runoff with little Democratic crossover vote, Byrne’s strong primary performance in the urban counties along I-65 where most regular Republican live (e.g., Madison, Jefferson, and Montgomery, along with Baldwin and Mobile in his southwest Alabama base) augers well for his chances. If, however, Bentley and/or AEA succeed in stimulating a large crossover vote, Bentley’s fairly balanced statewide appeal (along with a huge margin in his home town of Tuscaloosa) could make him very hard to beat.

The key intangible is probably how Republican voters who earlier supported Tim James or Roy Moore react to Byrne’s attacks on Bentley for a too cozy relationship with AEA. That could turn out to be a masterstroke, making the longtime establishment figure Byrne the perceived “true conservative” candidate, or could backfire by reinforcing Bentley’s sunnier and folksier message while boosting the crossover vote.

The other big Republican runoff is in the 2d congressional district in southeast Alabama, where Montgomery city council member Martha Roby, who won 48% in the primary, faces Tea Party activist and pool hall owner Rick Barber, who won 28%, for the right to face vulnerable freshman Democrat Bobby Bright.

Barber, of course, is nationally famous for Alabama’s latest entry in the annals of right-wing viral internet ads, a number entitled “Gather Your Armies,” which seems to suggest the Founding Fathers would favor a second American Revolution to topple the Obama administration. But as with prior viral ad icon Dale Peterson (who finished well back from the lead for the GOP nomination for Agriculture Commissioner), it’s not clear this notoriety translates into votes in Alabama. Roby is conventionally conservative enough, and was close enough to a majority in the primary, to be the favorite in this runoff.

Meanwhile, Democrats have a highly competitive runoff between two African-American women in the 7th congressional district (vacated by unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate Artur Davis), where the nomination is tantamount to election. Both candidates, bond lawyer Terri Sewell (37% in the primary) and former TV news reporter and Jefferson County council member Shelia Smoot (29% in the primary) are from Birmingham, where the bulk of the vote, thanks to several runoffs for local offices, is likely to be cast. Turnout patterns could reduce the advantage Sewell had in the primary in the southern part of the district (she was born in Selma, where her mother served on the city council).

But Sewell also has enjoyed an big financial advantage, with significant out-of-state backing, including an EMILY’s List endorsement. The candidates split endorsements from major Alabama African-American groups, with Sewell getting the nod from the New South Coalition (which endorsed third-place finisher Earl Hilliard, Jr., in the primary) and Smoot receiving support from the Alabama Democratic Conference. Smoot has also been endorsed by AEA. But Sewell’s money advantage and broader base of support, along with some backlash against Smoot’s involvement in the fiscally troubled Jefferson County government, should give her the edge.

Whatever happens today will in fact happen today: Alabama has no in-person early voting, and requires an affadavit with witnesses for absentee ballots. Polls will close at 7:00 p.m. CDT, and the count should be much faster than in the primary.

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