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Raw and Messy: Alabama Primary Preview

If you like your elections raw and messy, tomorrow’s Alabama primary should satisfy your appetite. It’s featured viral, much-parodied ads; disputes over biblical interpretation; wild conspiracy theories; college football rivalries; all sorts of reverse-spin tactics; and as usual in this state, largely unregulated campaign contributions and spending and heavy hitting by interest groups of every variety.

Suffice it to say that in the red-hot Republican gubernatorial primary, the famous Ten Commandments Judge, Roy Moore, has been one of the calmer and more responsible candidates. And on the Democratic side, Rep. Artur Davis’ bid to become the first African-American governor of a Deep South state has encountered some serious resistance in the Democratic primary–from the left!

Like many southern states, Alabama requires a majority for a primary, so many multi-candidate contests (certainly including the GOP gubernatorial race) will go to a runoff, with an unusually long six-week stretch before the July 13 runoff date.

With a reasonably popular Republican governor, Bob Riley, being term-limited and refusing to endorse a successor, it’s been a wide-open race. Among Republicans, the front-runner from the get-go has been business favorite Bradley Byrne, a former state legislator from the Mobile area and most recently chancellor of the state’s community college system. By Alabama’s very conservative GOP standards, Byrne is something of a moderate, mainly by virture of his support for Riley’s ill-fated tax reform initiative in 2003 (aimed at raising money for education and overhauling what is probably the nation’s most regressive state tax system), which voters rejected by a two-to-one margin.

The tone of this GOP primary campaign was set last fall, when in the course of answering a newspaper survey, Byrne, an Episcopalian, allowed as how he didn’t think every single word of the Bible was literally true. Within days, he was backtracking into adamant statements of support for both scriptural literalism and creationism; but the subject popped back up again in the late stages of the primary campaign when a group calling itself True Republican PAC ran an ad attacking Byrne for, well, heresy. And in a fine example of the byzantine nature of Alabama’s politics and campaign financing, it turns out the True Republican PAC was partially bankrolled by the pro-Democratic Alabama Education Association (an NEA affiliate), which has long feuded with Byrne.

While Byrne has been at the top of virtually every poll of the GOP primary, the battle for a runoff spot opposite him has been turbulent. As the ultimate known quantity in Alabama politics, Judge Moore (removed as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court in 2003 after refusing to obey a federal court order to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the court building) went into the race with a hard core of 15-20% of the vote (he won about a third of the vote in a quixotic challenge to Riley in 2006). And though underfunded, Moore had also boosted his stock by close association with the Tea Party movement.

The smart money for the candidate who might pass Moore to earn a runoff spot has always been on Tim James, son of former party-switching Gov. Fob James, and a wealthy businessman with close ties to the Christian Right and anti-tax forces (notably, he was on the other side of the barricades from Byrne in the 2003 tax reform fight). But in late April, James was still struggling along in third or fourth place in the polls, before he launched a spot crafted by the famous viral ad-master Fred Davis, wherein the taciturn blunt-faced candidate demanded that drivers’ tests in Alabama be conducted in English only. The timing was exquisite, coming just days after Arizona made immigration a top-tier national issue, particularly for conservatives.

James’ campaign seemed to be reinvigorated by all the attention–positive and negative–he got from the ad. Byrne blasted him on the distinctively-Alabama grounds that it would repel foreign investors, on which the state’s economic development efforts have heavily depended for most of the last two decades. And speaking of only-in-Alabama moments, one of James’ biggest speed-bumps in the stretch run involved reports that he had boasted he would fire or cut the salary of Alabama Crimson Tide football coach Nick Saban (James is an Auburn grad whose father was an All-American football player at Auburn). James finally sought to put out that fire by donning a “Saban Rules” cap at a campaign appearance.

The nasty Byrne-James slugfest on the airwaves and in the news media seems to have provided a late impetus to yet another Republican candidate, state legislator Robert Bentley, a dermatologist who had the priceless advantage of having once treated Nick Saban’s revered predecessor, Bear Bryant. Bentley’s upbeat campaign released a poll a couple of weeks ago showing him tied with Moore and creeping up on James. But independent polls place Bentley well back from the Big Three. Another independent poll, by R2K/DKos, shows Moore still in second place to Byrne, and significantly ahead of James.

In terms of campaign expenditures, Byrne, who’s spent $4.7 million, and James, who’s spent $4.1 million, dwarf the rest of the field.

The geography of the Republican primary will be important. Most GOP primary voters in Alabama live near I-65, which runs from Huntsville to Birmingham and then to Montgomery and Mobile. Byrne’s base is in Mobile; Moore’s is in northeast Alabama; Bentley’s is in West Alabama; James’ support seems pretty evenly distributed around the state.

For all the fireworks in the Republican primary, the Democratic gubernatorial primary has been interesting as well. Rep. Artur Davis, a centrist congressman who is often described as sort of a Deep South version of Barack Obama (and who is a personal friend of the president as well, though he hasn’t mentioned that much during the current campaign), got into the race very early, and seemed to have a lock on the Democratic nomination when potentially strong white opponents, most notably Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom, declined to enter. But state agriculture commissioner Ron Sparks did jump in, and his long-shot candidacy has been fed by progressive disenchantment with Davis’ relatively conservative voting record–particularly his vocal opposition to health reform–and by Davis’ own apparent triangulation strategy in the governor’s race. Davis declined to pursue endorsements by several major Alabama African-American groups (among whom he already had problems thanks to his primay defeat of civil rights veteran Earl Hilliard back in 2002). Sparks also won the AEA’s endorsement.

Thanks to union help, and also support from gaming interests (Sparks is a vocal supporter of both a state lottery and casinos), Sparks has managed to raise $1.9 miilion, within shouting distance of the front-runner’s $2.6 million. And though polls are a bit spotty in this contest, there’s general agreement that Sparks has made a race of it. A late R2K/DKos survey shows Davis up 41-33, with the two candidates even in the white vote and much of Davis’ lead coming from his own (majority-black) congressional district. Davis is likely to win, but must hope the lack of enthusiasm for him among African-American political leaders doesn’t produce poor turnout in his base.

There are several other interesting primary battles on tap in Alabama tomorrow. One that has gained national attention, thanks to another viral ad, is the Republican primary to succeed Sparks as agriculture commissioner, where underfunded right-wing candidate Dale Peterson’s gun-toting, tough-talking video has become a national YouTube sensation. Another is the GOP primary for Attorney General, a flashpoint in Alabama’s continuing wars over public gaming, where anti-gambling Gov. Bob Riley has endorsed challenger Luther Strange over incumbent Troy King.

There are also three notable congressional primaries. There’s the Republican tilt in the north Alabama 5th District represented by recent party-switcher Parker Griffith. The incumbent has two credible opponents and is struggling to avoid a runoff. In southeast Alabama’s 2d District, there’s a close battle among Republicans to choose an opponent for conservative Democratic congressman Bobby Bright, with Martha Roby probably the front-runner and headed to a runoff. And the Democratic primary to succeed Artur Davis in the 7th District features a close race between Terri Sewell and none other than Earl Hilliard, Jr.; with a third credible candidate, Sheila Smoot, in the race, it will probably go to a runoff. And finally, there is a Democratic primary for the nomination to face U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, who is not considered at all vulnerable; William Barnes is considered the favorite over Simone De Moore.

A few final notes: turnout in Alabama is expected to be in the 35-40 percent range, split more or less evenly between the two parties (there is no party registration in Alabama). Polls close statewide at 7:00 p.m. central daylight time.

UPDATE (June 1, 1:00 PM): Turnout is reported to be relatively light in Alabama today, perhaps confirming fears that holding a statewide primary immediately after a major holiday weekend isn’t the best idea. It’s also worth noting that Alabama is not a state that allows early voting (other than genuine absentee ballots). So what you see today is pretty much what you get.