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Alabama Primaries Take Center Stage Today

We’re now into the heart of primary season, with next Tuesday’s 11-state (10 primaries plus the Arkansas runoff) extravaganza being the big show. But today Alabama, Mississippi and New Mexico are holding primaries, with the breadth and craziness of the contests in Alabama making that state the focus of attention.

With Alabama’s Republican Gov. Bob Riley being termed-limited, there are competitive primaries in both parties to succeed him. The race between U.S. Rep. Artur Davis and state Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks for the Democratic nomination has recently tightened, with R2K/DKos showing the front-runner with a 41-33 lead (there are no other candidates).

Davis, considered a leader in the House New Democrat Coalition, is also a close friend of President Obama, if not always a reliable supporter in Congress. He’s been preparing for this race for years, and may, in fact, have begun positioning himself for a tough general election a bit too early. Sparks jumped into the race after several other prominent Democrats demurred, and has benefitted from national and local unhappiness with Davis’s voting record (particularly his conspicuous votes against health care reform) and campaign.

Though his election would be a historic event for Alabama’s African-Americans, Davis refused to seek the endorsements of several major African-American Democratic organizations, which went by default to Sparks (who is white); the underdog has also won labor endorsements, and has received strong financial backing from the NEA affiliate in the state, a major power in Democratic politics. Combined with Sparks’ support from gaming interests (he favors a state lottery and casino gambling), he’s been able to keep close to Davis in fundraising (Davis has raised $2.6 million, Sparks $1.9 million).

The Democratic race was relatively civil until the home stretch, when Sparks accused Davis of campaign finance irregularities and Davis accused Sparks of discriminatory practices at the state Ag Department. The R2K/DKos poll showed Davis, despite his spurning of African-American group endorsements, beating Sparks handily among black voters (especially in his own congressional district), with the two running even among white voters. It will likely come down to turnout patterns, with the Davis campaign’s main fear being exceptionally low African-American turnout.

The Republican gubernatorial primary has been much livelier than the Democratic contest, with a runoff certain. The front-runner all along has been former state legislator and state community college chancellor Bradley Byrne, a favorite of Alabama’s powerful business community. The battle for a runoff spot opposite Byrne has revolved around efforts of other candidates to get past “Ten Commandments Judge” Roy Moore, a Christian Right icon with close Tea Party ties, who came into the race with universal name ID and an immovable share of the electorate. Fortunately for his rivals, Moore refuses to take PAC contributions and has run a low-budget race.

That’s certainly not true of wealthy businessman (and son of former party-switching Gov. Fob James) Tim James, who’s running second or third in most polls, and who has spent $4.1 million on the race, near Byrne’s $4.7 million. James’ campaign lit up when the viral ad-master Fred Davis crafted an ad for him (just days after Arizona’s immigration law was enacted) called “Language,” ostensibly focused on demands that Alabama stop offering driver’s tests in languages other than English, which concluded with these lines: “This is Alabama. We speak English here. If you want to live here, learn it.” Mockery of the ad nationally clearly helped James among Alabama Republicans, though Byrne accused him of endangering Alabama’s heavily foreign-investment-based economic development strategy.

Though still another candidate, Dr. Robert Bentley of Tuscaloosa, made a bit of a splash by exploiting the increasingly poisonous Byrne-James competition with an upbeat message, most observers think the real game remains whether James can get past Moore. Another late development in the campaign involved reports that James (an Auburn grad whose father was an all-American football player at Auburn) was bragging that as governor he’d fire or cut the salary of Alabama Crimson Tide football coach Nick Saban, an act of sacrilege the candidate was quick to deny. Meanwhile, Byrne has been accusing James of complicity with the Alabama Education Association’s attacks on the front-runner, including (in a twist that reflects the state’s largely unregulated campaign finance system) heavy AEA contributions to a shadowy group called the True Republican PAC that’s run ads savaging Byrne for allegedly believing in evolution and doubting the literal truth of the Bible (allegations Byrne has been quick to deny).

Despite all the fireworks, early turnout in Alabama today has been notably light, but we’ll have to wait and see if that benefits well-known underdogs like Sparks and Moore.

Meanwhile, Republicans are holding highly competitive primaries in two House districts, one involving party-switcher Parker Griffith, who is in danger of being knocked into a runoff, and the other to choose an opponent for conservative Democrat Bobby Bright. Democrats are holding a barnburner in Davis’ district, with one candidate likely to make a runoff being Earl Hilliard, Jr., the son of the man Davis beat to win the seat in 2002.

The big action over in Mississippi (where state elections are held off-year) is in Republican primaries to choose opponents for vulnerable Democratic House members Travis Childers and Gene Taylor. And in New Mexico, there’s a very competitive GOP primary for Governor, with local D.A. Susana Martinez currently favored over former state party chair Allen Weh for the right to take on Democratic Lt. Gov. Diane Denish.

This Friday I’ll have a full report on polling for the June 8 primaries.

Ed Kilgore’s PPI Political Memo runs every Tuesday and Friday.

Photo credit: RoadSide Bandit’s Photostream