Last week, Wetumpka Tea Party President Becky Gerritson hinted she is considering challenging Rep. Martha Roby, the Republican congresswoman for Alabama’s 2nd congressional district, which includes Montgomery and the lower third of the eastern part of the state.
Gerritson burst on the scene in 2013 when she testified before the House Ways and Means Committee about her ordeal in attempting to obtain nonprofit tax-exempt status for her Tea Party group. During that hearing, she made an emotional statement protesting the perceived overreach of the IRS.
“I am a born-free, American woman — wife, mother and citizen — and I’m telling my government that you have forgotten your place,” she said.
And thus, a star was born — at least for a solid 15 minutes in 2013 — but is that enough to propel a candidate to a seat in Congress?
Gerritson, like many other of Roby’s constituents, have grown dissatisfied with what they perceived to be the incumbent congresswoman’s willingness to buck the conservative position and go along with the Republican leadership. That perception is largely reality. In her three terms, Roby has shown she is a good soldier for John Boehner, including as recently as the end of last year in voting for the CR/omnibus spending bill despite the protestations from a very vocal group of her constituents.
But that probably won’t be enough to unseat Roby. If an incumbent is ever going to be beaten by one of these so-called Tea Party upstarts in Alabama, they won’t be beaten by the common approach.
So far, the rabble-rousing bomb-throwers vying for a Republican congressional nomination in Alabama are winless in primary contests dating back to the Tea Party wave in the 2010 midterms. Those midterms featured a unique cast of characters including Dale Peterson, who was a long-shot candidate vying for the GOP nomination for agriculture commissioner, and Rick Barber, the serious challenge Roby faced in her initial 2010 run for the GOP congressional nomination.
Both Peterson and Barber produced outlandish YouTube ads that caught national attention for being over the top. Barber’s was especially unconventional because his included a conversation with the men dressed as Founding Fathers discussing the current state of affairs and ending with the tagline, “Gather your armies.”
Both of those candidates lost and neither have been able to do anything from their short-lived fame.
The secret is Alabamians like their establishment candidates, perhaps not consciously. It’s not a matter of voters going to the polls and voting for the best happy soldier for John Boehner’s army. Instead, they’re voting for the rewards that come from being loyal to their own leadership.
If Alabamians were looking for a grand ideological stand, the political landscape in the state would look much different, top to bottom.
At the very top, both Sens. Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions have been big bread winners for the state. With exception of Sessions’ stands on immigration and welfare, neither senator is steeped in dogmatic conservative ideology yet both remain very popular in the eyes of the voters.
That is consistent around the state among the state’s House delegation as well.
Roby, for example, has been successful in keeping the 908th Airlift Wing’s presence at Maxwell AFB and 37,000 flight hours and 500 training positions from Fort Rucker, both of which were threatened by cuts in 2013.
Even Rep. Mo Brooks, who is arguably the most conservative in the delegation, is in a continuous push to preserve funding for funding for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and the Redstone Arsenal, both of which are inside his district.
Thus far during his tenure as the 1st congressional district’s representative, Rep. Bradley Byrne will likely be judged on his ability to get the construction of a new I-10 bridge over the Mobile River underway. The moral of the story is Tea Party candidates need to take a different approach rather than the usual washed, rinsed and repeated tactics in challenging an incumbent from the right.
Certainly rolling back the previous administration’s growth of the federal government would be a suitable approach for any candidate vying for federal elected office, especially ObamaCare. However, Obama won’t be on the ballot in 2016 and it seems even Democrats on the ballot won’t be running on continuing his policies beyond the expiration of his term.
Whoever challenges one of these incumbent Republicans should take a balanced approach. Most Alabama voters aren’t looking for federal government handouts, but they’re not looking to block any federal government involvement or assistance coming back from Washington.
For fiscal year 2012, Alabama was responsible for $20 million in federal tax revenue. That is on the low side nationally, pitting the state 31st among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. But nonetheless, it’s still reasonable for voters to expect a return on the taxes they paid to the federal government.
All the bluster about impeaching Obama, closing the Department of Education, voting out Boehner, etc. — it resonates with a very vocal group of voters. But as we’ve seen repeatedly over the last five years, it isn’t necessarily a winning message.
It’s going to take learning from those previous efforts to unseat incumbents and so-called establishment candidates if Gerritson and any other candidate wants to pull off an upset in the 2016 primaries.