By Jim EllisFeb. 25, 2019 — One of the critical 2020 US Senate contests is beginning to take shape. Over the past few days, Alabama Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Mobile) formally announced his statewide candidacy with the goal of opposing Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, who won the controversial 2017 special election that attracted national attention.
The Jones victory, defeating beleaguered Republican Roy Moore, a former state Supreme Court Chief Justice, represented the first time a Democrat won an Alabama statewide federal election since incumbent Sen. Howell Heflin secured his final term in 1990.
Prior to that, Richard Shelby, then a Democratic congressman, unseated Republican Sen. Jeremiah Denton in 1986. Shelby then switched to the Republican Party immediately after the 1994 election. Prior to the Denton victory on the same night that Ronald Reagan was first elected president, no Republican had won an Alabama seat for more than 100 years.
The Yellowhammer State Senate race could well be the lynchpin to determining which party will control the chamber after the 2020 election. With the electoral map favoring the Democrats because Republicans must defend 22 of the 34 in-cycle seats, including the Arizona special Senate election, Alabama becomes a virtual “must-win” for the GOP.
Holding a 53-47 majority, including Independents Bernie Sanders (VT) and Angus King (ME) who caucus with the Democrats, the Republicans gaining an extra seat through defeating Sen. Jones is of immeasurable importance in terms of sustaining the party’s majority. Other than Alabama, none of the Democrats’ 11 other defense seats are highly vulnerable, at least during this early stage of the 2020 cycle.
But, Rep. Byrne entering the race doesn’t necessarily enhance the GOP’s status. Immediately upon hearing the announcement, the Club for Growth organization, an anti-tax, pro-economic prosperity group who favors Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Hoover/ Alabaster), released a new WPA Intelligence survey that finds the two congressmen tied in a one-on-one battle. According to the WPA data (Feb. 10-12; 500 likely Alabama Republican primary voters), both Byrne and Palmer would receive 27 percent support.
It is unlikely that such a race would materialize, however, since several Alabama political figures are expressing interest in the Senate race. For example, state Auditor Jim Zeigler (R), who was just re-elected in November with 60 percent of the vote, has also announced for the Senate but has done very little to build a campaign organization since declaring his candidacy.
While Rep. Palmer has not made any public statements about wanting to run statewide, private sources indicate that he is at least considering his Senate options.
A crowded field for the June Alabama partisan primary would almost alone ensure that no candidate would receive majority support, forcing a secondary July election to decide the party nomination.
In the past, Congressman Byrne did not fare well in such a setting. In 2010, as a former state Board of Education member and ex-state senator, he placed first in the primary election, advancing to a secondary run-off vote with then-state Rep. Robert Bentley, who barely finished second. In the subsequent election, Bentley defeated Byrne 56-44 percent when the conservative base aligned itself with the former, the man who would then go onto win the general election.
The eventual 2020 Republican senatorial nominee, assuming the party can avoid a political blood bath in the nomination phase, should be well positioned to unseat Sen. Jones. In the 2018 statewide elections, the GOP won all seven positions, including governor, with consistent margins between 59 and 61 percent for the five offices that were contested. The state treasurer and agriculture commissioner both ran without Democratic Party opposition.
The last time an Alabama Democrat won a statewide race until Jones claimed the Senate seat at the end of 2017 came in 2006, when Jim Folsom Jr. was elected lieutenant governor and Ron Sparks secured a second term as agriculture commissioner.
Considering the election history and reviewing the special election debacle for Republicans that allowed Jones to win the Senate seat 14 months ago, it becomes clearer than ever that the GOP must quickly unite behind the eventual nominee immediately after the nomination phase ends if they are to convert this seat in November of 2020.
The Alabama Senate race, along with Democratic challenges of Republican senators in Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Maine, and North Carolina promise to remain in the top tier of competitive campaigns throughout the 2020 election cycle.