An Alabama Surprise

By Jim Ellis

May 19, 2017 — Filing closed yesterday for the Alabama special Senate election, and events didn’t unfold as expected. Instead of having more candidates opposing appointed Sen. Luther Strange in the special Republican primary, we actually see fewer.

Three individuals expected to file formal candidate declaration statements, including an announced candidate and one who had filed an exploratory committee — and both of those were viewed as active candidates until yesterday — chose not to run.

State Senate President Del Marsh (R-Anniston) was an Alabama politico thought to be a sure US Senate candidate. About 10 days ago he said a decision had been reached about the statewide special election, but wouldn’t be announced until later. As filing closed, Sen. Marsh chose to remain on the political sidelines. He still expresses interest in the governor’s race, but says he would “probably” support Gov. Kay Ivey (R) if she decides to run.

State Rep. Ed Henry (R-Decatur), who led the drive in the state House to impeach resigned Gov. Robert Bentley (R) and was one of the first individuals to announce his Senate candidacy, also decided not to formally file.

Former state Rep. Perry O. Hooper Jr., who spent 19 years in the state House of Representatives and formed a US Senate exploratory committee soon after the special election was called, also chose not to become a candidate.

Therefore, the only late entry was US Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Huntsville), who announced for the Senate on Monday. The Brooks entry was particularly crushing for Henry since they both hail from the same part of the state, and may have been at least part of the reason the latter decided to reverse course.

With the field set, Sen. Strange now finds himself facing a much different group of opponents than he originally must have expected. He certainly sees a smaller contingent of serious candidates: Brooks, former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, and resigned Alabama Christian Coalition president Randy Brinson, which may play to his benefit.

The senator’s clear advantage is that all of his three major opponents -– seven minor Republicans also filed -– come from the far right of the ideological spectrum. Often times in modern day primaries this is an asset, but, in this instance, too many contenders are drawing upon the same voter segment. Such a division should help Sen. Strange secure a position for a run-off, but whether or not he can score an outright win in the Aug. 15 primary is difficult to predict at this early juncture.

One person the new candidate configuration could help is Congressman Brooks. His goal is to convince the anti-Strange Republican voters, particularly those who may feel the senator’s appointment from the scandal-tarred Gov. Bentley was tainted, to coalesce around his own candidacy. Rep. Brooks may be able to develop sufficient support not only to deny Strange an outright victory, but also qualify against him for a Sept. 26 run-off. In this scenario, since Strange would have fallen short of majority support within the party, the interim senator would be vulnerable facing one challenger in a run-off setting.

Of course, the other two credible candidates could arguably be in the same position as Brooks, particularly former Supreme Court Justice Moore. The ex-justice has high name identification, but being twice removed from the bench could cause many conservative voters, particularly those having qualms about Bentley’s appointment of Strange, to gravitate around Brooks as the “cleaner” choice.

All things considered, these most recent developments should favor Sen. Strange. He now appears to be in a stronger position to secure the party nomination, possibly in outright fashion. Because of Alabama’s strong Republican voting history, the eventual GOP nominee will have the inside track for the special December general election likely opposite former US Attorney Doug Jones (D).

Winning this special election will mean serving the remaining three years of the current term and next facing the voters in the 2020 election, when this seat again comes in-cycle.

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