FLORENCE – It’s 11:30 a.m. on a Saturday. There are about 50 people gathered to hear U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Fairhope, speak about his candidacy for Alabama’s 2020 U.S. Senate race.
That’s not a bad showing for a Saturday morning some 270-plus days out of a primary election for a Republican senatorial nomination.
Democrat Doug Jones currently occupies the U.S. Senate seat for which Byrne and others are vying. Jones, who pulled off a monumental upset in 2017, is the first Democrat to hold the position since the late Howell Heflin (who hailed from nearby Tuscumbia).
Heflin was a product of Shoals politics, an area that was one of the last non-majority-minority Democratic Party strongholds to fall in Alabama after the 1994 Republican revolution. This history might explain Byrne’s three-stop swing through the area.
The last two times Byrne was on the ballot in Lauderdale and Colbert counties, he finished behind Tim James in the 2010 gubernatorial Republican primary, and behind Robert Bentley in the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary runoff.
Given what we know now about Robert Bentley, Byrne losing to such a politician was crushing.
It wasn’t completely his fault. There was a behind-the-scenes effort to enlist Democrats to participate in the Republican Party primary that year. Nonetheless, despite coming out on top in the Republican primary, Byrne got trounced in the runoff by 12 points by Bentley.
A lot of what the three-and-a-half term congressman is doing this time around in a statewide election campaign seems to be an effort to avoid the mistakes of that 2010 gubernatorial campaign.
Days earlier, Byrne spent time in Geneva County in the Wiregrass, which went for Roy Moore in the 2010 primary, and in Covington County in Andalusia, which went to Tim James. Both went for Bentley in the runoff.
While spending time around the state, Byrne isn’t just giving speeches, shaking hands and kissing babies, but courting local elected Republicans for their endorsements.
If the field does expand or become competitive, Byrne will have an on-the-ground network in places where just carpet-bombing the airwaves isn’t sufficient.
All too often, well-funded campaigns will try to run up the score in the Birmingham, Mobile, Montgomery and Huntsville metropolitan areas. It doesn’t always work, as past cycles have shown.
In the 2017 U.S. senatorial GOP runoff, Luther Strange won Jefferson and Shelby counties (Birmingham) and Madison County (Huntsville). He got beat by Roy Moore everywhere else and lost the nomination.
In the 2018 gubernatorial GOP primary, Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle fared a little better in the metropolitan areas than he did in the rural areas. But it was incumbent Gov. Kay Ivey’s dominance in the rural areas that gave her such an advantage that she was able to avoid a runoff primary election.
In the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary runoff, Byrne won Mobile, Baldwin, Montgomery, Jefferson, Limestone and Madison counties but lost the nomination. Sound familiar?
Another key strategic move Byrne has made, which is working in his favor, was the timing of his formal announcement for a U.S. Senate run back in February.
From a stage in Wintzell’s on Dauphin Street in downtown Mobile, he laid down a marker long before any in the current field of Republican contenders, which, as of right now, includes former Auburn head football coach Tommy Tuberville and State Rep. Arnold Mooney, R-Indian Springs.
Meanwhile, everyone else was standing on the sidelines, waiting to see what the field would look like. Would U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks run? What about Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth? Will U.S. Rep. Gary Palmer get in the race?
While everyone else has been standing in the wings like nervous teens at a homecoming sock hop, Byrne has been out canvassing Alabama, fundraising and assembling a campaign infrastructure.
One problem still looms for the Baldwin County congressman: His decision in the waning days of the 2016 presidential election to call on Donald Trump to step aside and allow Republican vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence to assume the top of the ticket.
That didn’t happen, and Trump went on to be elected president. Trump’s popularity soared in Alabama. Almost every competitive contest of the 2018 Republican primary featured candidates touting how pro-Trump they were.
Based on remarks he made at an earlier event in nearby Muscle Shoals, Byrne would like to have that one back.
“I learn every day,” he said to the Shoals Republican Club earlier on Saturday morning when asked about the “un-endorsement.” “And part of learning is knowing when you make a mistake. You learn from your mistake and you do better next time. That’s what I do. I do that all the time.”
It will likely come up again for Byrne, perhaps in an attack advertisement from Tuberville, who looks to be trying to assume the MAGA/Trumpiest lane. However, it is a stretch to think that it will end Byrne’s chances.
For now, Byrne is the front-runner and looks to be on his way to conquering the demons of 2010 and 2016. The question is, can he keep this game plan, which seems to be working, in place for the next year and a half?
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