Illustration | Laura Mattei
What started as a relatively quiet four-way race in the GOP primary for Alabama’s First Congressional District seat turned into a contentious runoff between a candidate backed by a national super political action committee (PAC) and another who fared better with supporters on the local level.
Mobile County Commission President Jerry Carl just edged out former State Sen. Bill Hightower in March in a relatively noncontroversial Republican primary. However, delays caused by COVID-19 have caused their runoff race to grow more costly and contested than previously predicted.
A businessman, Hightower won a special election to the Alabama Senate in 2013 and was re-elected the following year. He gave up his seat in 2018 to launch an unsuccessful bid for governor and launched his campaign for the House seat held by outgoing Congressman Bradley Byrne last year.
According to Hightower, this race is another opportunity to serve the people of southwest Alabama.
“I’ve always wanted to make a difference for Alabama and for this district, and I think I proved that in the Senate. I fought for things like BP [oil spill] dollars and against tax increase and tried to help the district … This is just an extension of that,” Hightower said. “I have a good sense of what we need. I’m a conservative. I want to bring jobs to our district and take the values of Alabama with me to Washington.”
Hightower said Alabama’s workforce has already demonstrated it’s capable of attracting major industries, but he wants to focus on removing some of the stumbling blocks — from taxes to regulations — that can deter businesses from coming to or expanding in Alabama.
Carl has also heavily touted his background in business. Elected to the Mobile County Commission in 2012, he was reelected in 2016 and served during a time of significant economic growth in Mobile County that saw the arrival or expansion of major industry players like Airbus, Amazon and Walmart.
It’s worth noting Hightower supported many of those projects during his time in the Senate as well.
Speaking to Lagniappe, Carl described himself as a “ditch digger” — someone who can “mix it up and get things done” for the people on the ground in this congressional district. He described himself as the more “down-to-earth” candidate in the race, adding he doesn’t aspire to be “some kind of Taj Mahal politician.”
“You’ve got to send someone to Washington that can mix it up and get things done. One day you’re at war with the Democratic Party, but the next day you’re having to lock arms in order to push something through for our district,” Carl said. “With my time on the commission, I’m very aware of the local issues we have and I’ve had eight years of training. If you talk to congressmen there now, they’ll tell you the legislative side is easy to learn; what they can’t teach you is what’s going on in the field in your district.”
According to filings released by the Federal Elections Commission (FEC), Hightower’s campaign has raised more than $1.2 million with his biggest contributions coming from out-of-state, conservative super PACs run by Washington staples Club for Growth and Koch Industries Inc. Carl’s campaign raised a bit more with $1.7 million, though he also appears to have tapped into more than $758,000 of his own money on top of support from individuals and groups like the locally organized Right for Alabama PAC.During the runoff period alone, FEC filings indicate Carl raised $215,740 and spent $183,035. Hightower was able to raise $174,057 and reported spending $192,156 after the race went into overtime. At least some of those funds likely helped pay for increasingly targeted ads throughout the course of the runoff.
According to Hightower, Carl caused the tone of the race to shift after he ran a negative ad about him shortly after the primary. As someone who claims to “hit back harder,” Hightower said he retaliated in kind. But whoever struck first, it’s hard to argue Hightower and his backers didn’t strike harder.
It was around that time Club for Growth Action began dumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into online, TV and radio ads attacking Carl. According to public filings, Club for Growth PAC and Club for Growth Action have spent more than $1.1 million on the AL-01 House race altogether.
Hightower has focused on some of the talking points outlined in Club for Growth’s ad campaign over the past two months, and he doubled down on those when Lagniappe asked what separates the two self-proclaimed pro-life, pro-Trump, pro-gun Republicans vying for the same job in Congress.
“I am the only candidate to have voted against every tax increase in Montgomery. Mr. Carl has voted for every tax increase in Mobile County,” he said. “I was the only senator to bring term limits up for a vote on the Senate floor. I’ve signed the term limits pledge in Washington. Mr. Carl has not to my knowledge.”
Hightower has also leaned heavily on his national endorsements, which include support from the National Right to Life, former Regan cabinet member Gary Bauer, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and President Trump’s economic advisor, Stephen Moore. However, his endorsement from local groups have been more selective and include former State Sen. Bill Roberts, the Alabama Forestry Association and local pro-life activist Susan Baldwin, who serves as the executive director of the Women’s Resource Center.
Carl, on the other hand, seems to be the local favorite and has picked up the endorsement of the Business Council of Alabama, the Alabama Farmers Federation and the Coastal 150, as well as support from Byrne and former primary opponents, State Rep. Chris Pringle (R-Mobile) and local restaurateur Wes Lambert. One focus of Carl’s campaign recently has been Hightower’s influx of out-of-state support.
“Club for Growth is trying to buy this district and they don’t hide it. They’ve poured twice as much into beating me as they have against the entire Democratic Party nationally. Why is that?” Carl said. “We’re the local choice because people know I’ve got a better chance of getting something done. They know Bill and know Club for Growth pretty much has him bought, and they’re anti-Port [of Mobile], anti-Austal, anti-flood insurance, anti-farm subsidies … I wish somebody would tell me what they’re for.”
Last month, Carl publicly claimed as he was vetted by Club of Growth, he was asked if he would vote against continuing the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program that substantially benefits Austal USA’s shipyard in Mobile, which is the second-largest employer in the region. Both Pringle and Lambert later said they were asked a similar question when being interviewed by representatives from Club for Growth.
All three claimed they wouldn’t support anything that would hurt Austal, and on his various social media channels Carl has suggested Hightower may have given them a different answer to obtain Club for Growth’s endorsement. However, Hightower steadfastly denies ever being asked about the LCS contract and said he would never support anything that could jeopardize 4,000 local jobs. He added he had a record of supporting Austal in the State Senate and would continue to do so if elected to Congress.
“Mr. Carl has consistently lied about things and this is just another one of those things. The root of this is his disappointment over not getting endorsed by Club for Growth,” Hightower said. “This is a grassroots organization of conservatives that support limited taxes, limited government, school choice, and Mr. Carl didn’t seem to have a problem with them when he traveled over a thousand miles trying to get their endorsement. The reason he didn’t get it is because he’s a tax-raiser.”
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