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These are the Alabama House and Senate races to watch in 2014

Alabama State Capitol
Alabama State Capitol

Yellowhammer has already given you the big picture lay of the land for this year’s legislative races, now let’s take a look at some of the most hotly contested House and Senate districts to watch in 2014.

Remember, with Alabama having become a bright red state in 2010, it is fairly rare for there to be a general election fight between Republicans and Democrats. The battle is almost exclusively in the Republican primary, with a few notable exceptions.

That means that traditionally Democrat-aligned powerhouses like the Alabama Education Association (AEA) are planning to spend millions of dollars in Republican primaries this year, so hang on to your hats.

Here’s our take on what to look out for:

Republican primary fight in Senate District 30

Sen. Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville
Sen. Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville

When Sen. Bryan Taylor, R-Prattville, announced in late October of last year that he would not seek re-election in 2014, candidates quickly began lining up for this safe GOP seat.

Suzelle Josey of Deatsville, a former spokesperson for Chief Justice Roy Moore, had already announced plans to challenge Taylor, and Millbrook’s Harris Garner, owner of Garner Electric Company, wasn’t far behind her. They have since been joined in the Republican primary by insurance agent Bill Harris and Prattville City Councilman Clyde Chambliss, Jr.

As with any open seat, this one’s going to be hotly contested, and a prime opportunity for the AEA to infiltrate the Republican primary. AEA-aligned operatives are running Harris Garner’s campaign, which should be a huge red flag to any Republican primary voters.

Chambliss is the early favorite. He has already been endorsed by The American Council of Engineering Companies and The Homebuilders’ Association of Alabama. Early polling shows he has strong positive name ID, and he’s a strong fundraiser. Expect AEA to dump a ton of money in this race, either through direct candidate contributions to Garner or through ads running under the name “Alabama Values Education” — or both.

Key potential pickups for Republicans in the Senate

Yellowhammer has focused a lot on the battle between Republicans trying to maintain their supermajority in the Senate and the AEA trying to chip away at it, either in the general election or Republican primary, but there are also a few opportunities for Republicans to take out some sitting Democrats.

Sen. Tammy Irons, D-Florence, announced last week that she’s not seeking re-election. That makes Senate District 1 a likely pickup for the GOP. Three Republicans have already qualified for the seat, including small businessman Jonathan Berryhill, Dr. Tim Melson, and early favorite Chris Seibert, an Athens City Councilman and former Univ. of Alabama football player.

Sen. Marc Keahey, D-Grove Hill, qualified for re-election at the last minute in his south Alabama senate district, but rumor has it that he may just be a placeholder while Democrats search for a candidate to take his place. Since the senate districts were redrawn after the 2010 elections, Keahey’s district has become significantly more Republican-leaning. Five Republicans are vying for the seat.

Melinda McClendon, R-Dothan
Melinda McClendon, R-Dothan

Independent Sen. Harri Ann Smith of Dothan might as well have a “D” beside her name, as she sides with the Democratic minority on most tough votes. The former Republican, who was denied ballot access by Republicans after she endorsed a Democrat for Congress, has done a masterful job over the years of portraying herself as the victim. She was the victim of Gov. Bob Riley and the anti-gambling crowd; she was the victim after former Rep. Jay Love bested her when she ran for Congress; and she was the victim when the Republican Party disowned her. She’s going to have a much harder time playing the victim when her opponent is another woman, Houston County Commissioner Melinda McClendon. Republicans are excited about McClendon’s candidacy, and will spend heavily to pick up this seat. But the AEA won’t make it easy. Expect them to pump big bucks into protecting one of their biggest allies in the senate.

House District 91

Rep. Barry Moore, R-Enterprise
Rep. Barry Moore, R-Enterprise
Another wiregrass-area race to watch is House District 91. Yellowhammer named incumbent Rep. Barry Moore, R-Enterprise, the most conservative member of the legislature last year, but an impeccable voting record (e.g. only legislator to vote “no” on extending unemployment benefits) doesn’t matter when AEA-aligned political operatives find a young, politically ambitious challenger they can co-opt.

Enterprise attorney Josh Pipkin has already gone hard negative against Moore. This will likely end up being one of the nastiest Republican primaries in the House.

General election battle in Senate District 10

Yellowhammer last year named incumbent Republican Sen. Phil Williams, R-Gadsden, one of the “Top 7 most conservative Alabama legislators.” But he represents one of the few legislative districts in the state that could actually have a competitive general election race. Williams is being challenged by former Democratic Senator Larry Means, who represented the 10th District from 1998 until 2010. Means was arrested on corruption charges only about a month before the 2010 general elections, but was ultimately acquitted and is now trying to return to the Senate at the age of 66.

The 10th District will be one of the Alabama Education Association’s (AEA) top targets. There is a pretty sizable union population in the district, a constituency that tends to favor Democrats. But Williams is well liked among conservatives, who appreciate his no-nonsense approach. His early polling numbers are strong as well. This race is shaping up to be a real battle.

AEA taking aim at Republican leadership

The word around Montgomery is that the AEA will spend $500k against each of the top Republicans in the Alabama legislature — Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, and House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn.

Rainy Day Patriots Tea Party member Steven Guede is challenging Marsh, who has come under fire from some grassroots conservatives for his support of Common Core. Fred “Sandy” Toomer, founder Toomers Coffee Roasters Company, is challenging Hubbard.

These races are extremely personal for AEA Head Henry Mabry, who plans to spend big bucks in these races, whether it makes tactical sense or not.

Senate District 8

Sen. Shad McGill opted not to run for re-election, opening up a two-man race for the Republican nomination in this safe GOP district.

State Rep. Todd Greeson, R-Ider, is running for the seat and starts with a name-ID advantage after being in the legislature for over 15 years. His campaign has already received tens of thousands of dollars from the AEA.

Businessman Steve Livingston is the other Republican in the race. He is the owner and manager of Dicus Oil Company, has served as president of Jackson-Scottsboro Chamber of Commerce, Scottsboro Rotary and is a founding member of Leadership Jackson County.

Senate District 17

Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale
Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale
It didn’t take long for Republicans to start coming out of the woodwork to run in this safe GOP district after Tea Party favorite Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, announced he would not seek re-election.

Here’s the list of candidates who qualified for the Republican primary in SD11:

Shay Shelnutt
Jim Murphree
Gayle H. Gear
Brett King
Adam Ritch
Joe Cochran
Jim Roberts

Murphree and Gear are the two candidates with AEA ties, but this race is so crowded it’s tough to say who should be the early favorite to survive the free for all.

Senate District 11

Democrat-turned Republican Sen. Jerry Fielding, R-Sylacauga, was hoping to avoid a primary challenger after he switched parties in 2012. But State Rep. Jim McClendon, R-Springville, decided in June of last year that he was going to jump in the primary against Fielding, who is still serving in his first term in the senate.

There are three big keys to look at in this race. First of all, the new district lines make St. Clair County the majority of the district. That is a huge advantage for McClendon. Secondly, McClendon holds a fairly substantial fundraising advantage over Fielding at this point. But finally, the real albatross around Fielding’s neck may be his vote against an anti-ObamaCare bill in 2012. It is tough to justify that in any Republican primary at this point.

That said, Fielding has been an extremely reliable vote for Republicans since he switched parties. We’ll see if that proves to be enough.

Independent candidates still have time to qualify

Although major party qualifying closed Feb. 7, Independent candidates have until June 3 to round up enough signatures to get on the ballot.

In order to gain ballot access, an Independent candidate must get the signatures of 3% of the total votes cast in the 2010 gubernatorial race in the district in which they want to run. For example, if 30,000 votes were cast in your district during the 2010 general election for governor, you would have to get 1,000 signatures in order to get your name on the ballot. An influx of Independent candidates could put a strain on the Alabama Secretary of State’s office, which is charged with verifying signatures. With limited manpower, that could be a daunting task.

Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison
Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison

Two races that could potentially end up with Independent candidates are Senate District 27, where former Democratic Sen. Ted Little may try to challenge incumbent Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, and Senate District 2, where former Republican Sen. Tom Butler may challenge incumbent Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Huntsville.

The AEA’s candidate recruitment efforts were somewhat of a flop in the GOP primaries, but with almost four months until June 3, there is a good chance they will round up some Independents to jump in and shake things up.


Follow Cliff on Twitter @Cliff_Sims