As you drive around our area, do you get the feeling a Republican primary for a U.S. Senate seat is roughly three and a half months away? Intellectually we know it’s a truth, but the usual physical signs of such a momentous race aren’t as prominent as I’d have expected by now.
First of all, yard signage is scant, to say the least. Garage sale signs far outnumber the political placards. I think I’ve actually seen more signs for a local judicial race than I have for the Senate contest.
Print and broadcast ads are also few and far between, and there really haven’t even been a lot of local public events where these candidates are out pressing the flesh. The lack of activity is even stranger given that there’s no Republican incumbent and this is a GOP dogfight to gain the nomination and relieve Democrat Doug Jones of his brief stay in D.C.
The nation as a whole is paying more attention to this race than are rank-and-file Alabamians right now. Only in the last week or so have I really started hearing people talk a little about who’s running, and even then the attitudes have been pretty noncommittal about any candidate in particular. While that’s simply anecdotal evidence, the polling I’ve seen backs up the notion that Republican voters in Alabama have not settled firmly on any of the top candidates.
This race is so much different now than when it began, though. Congressman Bradley Byrne jumped in early and was off to the races, raising money and seemingly mowing through a crowd of ho-hum competitors. But then former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville announced his run, immediately becoming the candidate with far more name recognition and star power. Since then Roy Moore has joined the race, adding his uber-conservative/religious bent to things, and it’s all been topped off by Jeff Sessions deciding at the last minute he wants his old seat back. What not all that long ago looked like Byrne’s race to lose is now entirely different.
Secretary of State John Merrill came and went in the race, and Moore seems unlikely to gain any real traction at all this go ’round. So conventional wisdom at this point is we’re essentially left with Sessions, Tuberville and Byrne as candidates who have realistic chances of making the runoff.
If it were legal for me to be a betting man in Alabama, I’d wager that it’s Tuberville and Sessions headed for that runoff, which makes it even more bizarre so little is happening in the second-biggest market in the state. Perhaps it’s because Byrne got in early, but the other candidates appear to have ceded the coast to Bradley and — in usual Alabama political fashion — are directing most of their efforts to the northern part of the state.
But this IS the second-most-populous area of our fine state and should it end up Sessions vs. Tubby, one would think it would have been advantageous during the short runoff period to have been working the coast a bit more. Maybe it will pick up as the primary nears. Or maybe we’ll just be snubbed Kay Ivey-style all the way through.
I also wonder if we’ll continue the trend of avoiding debates between the candidates since it worked so well for Ivey. It probably will depend primarily upon polling. If anyone gets seriously out in front they’ll avoid debates like a rattlesnake. Likewise, expect anyone who falls back significantly to start beating the drum about the people deserving a chance to see the candidates side by side so they can kick the tires. I’ve long made it clear I think candidates for any major office should be required to have a public debate, but that’s just because it makes sense for the voters, not the politicians.
Trump looms large over this race, as he does most everywhere else. But Sessions’ entry has to make the Trump factor in Alabama particularly complex.
Here we have the former U.S. Attorney General, who the president has repeatedly blamed for allowing an independent counsel’s “Russia investigation,” now attempting to regain the seat he gave up to join Trump. All while lying prostrate before the president, who has rhetorically crapped all over him. Getting into the race, Sessions had to know he was in a no-win situation — he can’t fight with Trump without alienating the base, but the tack he’s taken makes him look completely spineless. Meanwhile he sweats it out every day waiting for Trump’s itchy Twitter finger to ruin him.
Combine that with the fact he’s always been a back-bencher in the Senate, and it’s certainly no foregone conclusion he’ll simply waltz back into his old job.
Byrne has moved from a guy who in 2016 said Trump was not “fit to be president” after his famed “Access Hollywood” genital-grabbing lesson with Billy Bush, to now defending the president as if he’s in constant need of rescuing by the Congressman from Alabama’s First District.
He bizarrely blasted out a statement Monday declaring the DOJ Inspector General’s report released earlier in the day determined the FBI abused its power to investigate and harm Trump’s campaign. But the IG’s report found exactly the opposite. It was almost like he was telling us not to trust our own ability to read.
I get the feeling if Trump got shorted a bag of fries at the McDonald’s drive-thru, Byrne would issue a statement decrying the Deep State coup designed to prevent Trump from getting his proper caloric intake.
Maybe it’s not quite that bad, but it’s bad. Byrne is doing an awful lot of swinging for the fences.
Given the weaknesses of his opponents, Tuberville looks to be in the catbird seat right now — save for the fact the Washington establishment doesn’t want him there. He has high name ID, he’s a good public speaker and he has the cache of having been an SEC football coach. But the question of whether he’s “controllable” once in office seems to have Republican Senate leaders longing for Sessions’ return.
The race has begun in earnest, even if we can’t feel it or see it yet. Should make for an exciting entry into the Roaring Twenties.
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