With a little over a year to go until Alabama Republican primary voters pick their nominee for the 2020 U.S. Senate election, campaign silly season is well underway.
Prospective candidates are now jockeying to establish campaign infrastructure and increase name recognition for a chance to run in a general election against incumbent Sen. Doug Jones, a Democrat. If successful, they wouldn’t assume office until January 2021.
To win a Republican primary in this era of Alabama politics, you must check at least two of three boxes.
First, and perhaps most importantly, you must overcome the state’s geographic tribalism. The one thing that has remained consistent in Alabama electoral politics over the last several decades is the territorial component of winning a statewide election.
A mistake some candidates have made is putting way too much focus on the Birmingham media market. In 2017, then-Sen. Luther Strange went all-in on a Birmingham-centric strategy against his Republican runoff opponent, Roy Moore. As we all remember, Moore won the primary that year.
Months later, three candidates attempted a run against incumbent Gov. Kay Ivey for the GOP gubernatorial nod. Tommy Battle, the mayor of Huntsville, assumed the role of the North Alabama candidate. With the endorsement of radio talkers Rick & Bubba, evangelist Scott Dawson emerged as the Birmingham candidate. Having held a State Senate seat in Mobile County, Bill Hightower played the role of the Mobile candidate.
Ivey was the Alabama candidate. From the Shoals to Dothan and Scottsboro to Mobile, she had the most name recognition and dominated the primary outcome to avoid a runoff.
One of the candidates in the very early going of this 2020 cycle seems to get that statewide requirement. U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne has been everywhere. Although he hasn’t formally announced, he has spent a lot of time in places outside of Alabama’s first congressional district, a clear sign 2020 is on his mind.
For the second and third components — in Alabama Republican primary politics — candidates must pick a lane. It can be as the doctrinaire ideological conservative, like Rep. Mo Brooks, who said last week on Huntsville radio he likely will not try another run for Senate in 2020.
Or, it can be as the establishment Republican, who will claim the mantle of conservatism but won’t turn down help from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or the Business Council of Alabama.
Conventional wisdom suggests Alabama will elect the most conservative candidate as the Republican nominee in statewide elections, but that has not always been the case.
Upon closer examination of the high-profile Republican officeholders in Alabama, you’ll see the field is dominated by so-called establishment candidates who weren’t necessarily the most right wing in their respective GOP primaries.
Look for the candidate who can pull off being both a “right winger” and play nice with the establishment Republican business community types in Alabama.
One name that comes to mind is recently elected Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth. He’s relatively unknown to many, but that could be an advantage. He’s not clearly tethered to the conservative or establishment label and could potentially pull off both (at the same time).
Ainsworth was the top vote-getter for statewide office in the 2018 general election. That is not a minor accomplishment.
He may sit this one out, but the temptation may very well lure him to toss his name into the ring. Notably, he would be able to remain lieutenant governor even if he came up short.
The potential candidates who have publicly expressed interest so far are Byrne, State Senate Pro Tem President Del Marsh and State Auditor Jim Zeigler.
A candidate-by-candidate look at these early potential hopefuls shows some geographic hurdles.
Byrne’s Mobile and Baldwin county constituencies give him an early advantage.
Marsh, arguably one of the most powerful Republicans in Alabama, will have to figure out how to expand his name identification beyond Anniston and the halls of power in Montgomery.
As for Zeigler, he may not raise a lot of money, and he will have his detractors. But don’t underestimate his campaigning abilities. He will show up at every nook and cranny in Alabama — every Republican women’s club luncheon, pancake breakfast and Western Sizzlin’ buffet GOP dinner meeting in the state.
In a Republican primary election cycle, which likely will not feature a notable presidential primary at the top of the ticket, there is potential for a lighter turnout on March 3, 2020. The likely result of a small turnout and a crowded primary field will be a runoff. Any potential runoff would take place on April 14, 2020.
Meanwhile, incumbent Democrat Sen. Doug Jones will be watching. Republicans should realize that if the 2020 primary process becomes a circular firing squad resulting in debilitated candidates and a lot of hurt feelings, the well-funded Democrat incumbent — Sen. Jones — will be the beneficiary.
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