By Jim Ellis
April 14, 2017 — In office now just a few days, new Gov. Kay Ivey (R) is reportedly contemplating a major electoral decision that will add to Alabama’s considerable political intrigue. According to a spokesperson for Ivey, the governor is considering changing the special election schedule as it relates to appointed US Sen. Luther Strange’s (R) situation.
In a controversial decision, former Gov. Robert Bentley (R) appointed then-Attorney General Strange to replace Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) immediately after the latter was confirmed as US attorney general. The move was controversial since Strange was reportedly investigating the governor regarding the situation for which he resigned earlier this week, but during the appointment process said that no such inquiry was underway. After the Senate appointment was made and a new state attorney general installed, it was confirmed that a Bentley investigation was in fact quickly progressing.
In addition to choosing Strange to replace Sen. Sessions, Gov. Bentley scheduled the special election to fill the balance of the current Senate term to run concurrently with the regular 2018 election schedule. Some argued that Bentley exceeded his authority because the state’s special election law indicates the vote should be called “forthwith.” Bentley and his legal team argued that the “forthwith” reference in the Alabama statute referred to officially calling the election, but not necessarily to conducting the vote. Bentley also argued it is more cost effective to hold the special concurrently with the regular general election rather than incur the expense of running a stand-alone statewide vote.
This explanation did not sit well with many political observers and activists who want an election sooner rather than later, again citing the somewhat sordid circumstances surrounding Gov. Bentley’s appointment procedure. Republican State Auditor Jim Zeigler and Democratic former Conecuh County District Attorney Tommy Chapman jointly filed a lawsuit challenging Gov. Bentley’s special election schedule. A court hearing on the suit is scheduled for this week, which is why Gov. Ivey is considering taking action, herself.
If the election is to be changed, she will have to decide soon. In addition to the legal proceedings surrounding the issue, Secretary of State John Merrill (R) has informed the governor that he would need to know at least by May 12th in order to properly prepare for a 2017 statewide election.
For his part, Sen. Strange is planning for a quick election. Sworn in on Feb. 9, Strange already reports raising $674,000 for his new Senate campaign account and, after transferring available supplemental federal dollars, has $764,000 cash-on-hand. He will need considerably more to compete statewide, but his initial fundraising foray puts him in credible position to raise what will be needed.
Assuming Gov. Ivey seeks election in her own right next year, the Alabama political situation greatly changes. Politicos in both parties who were anticipating an open gubernatorial contest may now back away from challenging the new incumbent, particularly on the Republican side. Therefore, participating in a 2017 special election against Sen. Strange when they would not be forced to risk any current political position could well be an attractive option.
The Alabama special election would include partisan primaries and run-offs if no individual secures majority support in the initial election. A special general election would then follow.
Assuming Gov. Ivey re-schedules the special election and does so before May 12, the respective nomination votes could be posted as soon as late July, with any necessary run-off to follow in early September. Such a calendar would then place the special general in early November, which is, of course, the usual timing for a general vote. The special election winner would then serve until this particular seat is next in-cycle, meaning 2020.