Everything you need to know about Alabama’s most competitive Congressional race (AL-02 analysis)
It is shaping up to be a relatively calm election year in Alabama. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) is on track to easily win re-election, none of Alabama’s state-level office-holders are on the ballot, and six of the state’s seven U.S. House members have drawn little or no opposition. If it wasn’t for the SEC Primary making Alabama a bigger player in the presidential race, there wouldn’t be much electoral action at all. The lone exception is in Alabama’s Second Congressional District, where Martha Roby has attracted her first serious challenger since taking office in 2011.
Becky Gerritson is the President of the Wetumpka Tea Party, one of Alabama’s most active and effective conservative political advocacy groups. She garnered national attention in 2013 for her impassioned testimony before Congress detailing the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.
Martha Roby is currently in her third term serving the people of Alabama’s 2nd Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. Prior to being elected to Congress, she worked as an attorney and served as a city councilman in her hometown of Montgomery.
Going into what promises to be a spirited contest, Roby an Gerritson both have their strengths and weaknesses. Here are a few to consider:
Rep. Martha Roby (R-AL2)
— Incumbency —
This may seem counterintuitive because of the anti-incumbent sentiment of the electorate (more on that in a moment), but there are reasons why incumbents have won over 80 percent of Congressional elections over the past 50 years, and over 90 percent in some election cycles.
While Gerritson can only opine, Roby’s office gives her the opportunity to act. For instance, last week she launched a “last-ditch effort” to defund Planned Parenthood, introducing an amendment to immediately stop all federal funding to Planned Parenthood for the next year until investigations into the organization are seen through. The amendment passed the House, and Roby railed on the issue from the House floor multiple times. Roby was also selected to be a member of the Benghazi Select Committee, which means she’ll be questioning Hillary Clinton in front of a national audience in a few weeks.
Those are opportunities no mere candidate can replicate.
Being the incumbent also means Roby is starting with a large name recognition advantage, and much of the money — both inside and outside of the District — is going to flow to her, which brings us to Roby’s second strength…
— Fundraising —
Roby is starting the campaign with a $700,000 head start, a well-established donor base in the District, and motivated donors inside the Beltway who don’t like to possibility of adding another tea partier to the fractious House GOP caucus.
— Constituent services record —
It doesn’t get a lot of media attention, but the most direct interaction many constituents have with their member of Congress is through their constituent services staff inside the District.
Yellowhammer occasionally receives emails and phone calls from exasperated Alabamians who do not know who to contact about some government-related problem or another. The handful of times those contacts have compelled us to connect the individuals to the right person in Roby’s office, they have delivered in a big way.
Members’ voting records matter (keep reading for more on that), but if you’re the wife of a military veteran and your member of Congress helps you navigate the VA bureaucracy to get what you need, they’re going to get your vote next time around, period.
— Incumbency —
Both a strength and a weakness? Yep. People really hate politicians right now, and they hate Congress even more. Being a politician who’s a member of Congress? Yikes.
— Close ties to Leadership —
Roby has been a close ally of outgoing House Speaker John Boehner, who many conservatives view as the poster child for everything that is wrong with a squishy, stand-for-nothing Republican Party. She is also a close ally of likely incoming House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Those relationships have helped Roby land a prized slot on the House Appropriations Committee, but they also made her a card-carrying member of the GOP Establishment, as far as many grassroots conservatives are concerned. That’s a label no one wants to carry in a Republican primary right now.
— “Scorecards” —
Roby’s ratings on the conservative “scorecards” are the lowest among Alabama’s Republican congressmen. Here are her lifetime scores on several of them:
American Conservative Union: 70%
Heritage Action: 56%
The organizations who create these scorecards identify key votes, co-sponsorships, letter sign-ons and other criteria to create the scores. Each organization has different criteria, making the finale tallies somewhat subjective. But even though some congressmen argue their scores are not reflective of their full body of work in office, the scorecards have become something of a litmus test among grassroots conservatives, and are therefore a significant and relevant part of the GOP primary process. You can bet that the above scores will show up in anti-Roby campaign advertisements.
Some of the votes that have put Roby at odds with the Washington conservative watchdog groups are votes that likely play well with the Second District’s large military and farming communities, and it only takes a brief conversation with Team Roby to see that she’s planning to make her record the centerpiece of her campaign.
But on bills where GOP Leadership cut a deal with the White House or congressional Democrats and conservatives felt like they could have done better, chances are Roby backed her Leadership. That is going to take some explaining, and as Ronald Reagan once said in his diary, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.”
— Organizing —
Gerritson is an activist at heart, and her ability to organize grassroots conservatives in and around Wetumpka has been nothing short of impressive.
In 2012, Governor Robert Bentley and Republican leaders in the Alabama legislature pushed a statewide ballot initiative to allow them to patch a budget hole by borrowing $437 million from the state’s oil and gas trust fund. The amendment passed by a wide margin statewide, but the Gerritson-led “Don’t Bust the Trust” campaign resulted in Elmore County, where Wetumpka is located, being one of a very small number of counties where the amendment was voted down.
The local tea party’s grassroots efforts also led to them electing one of their own, Mike Holmes, to the state legislature in a special election last year.
Gerritson will be counting on that organization to overcome Roby’s fundraising and infrastructure advantages.
— Outsider status —
A military homemaker-turned-political-activist takes on the IRS, demands Congress hold them accountable, then makes appearances around the country trying to rally citizens to do the same. It’s a compelling outsider’s story at a time when the electorate is inclined to give political newcomers a shot.
Prior to announcing her Congressional bid, Gerritson had also signed on to be Alabama co-chair of Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, aligning her with America’s most outsider-y federal politician.
— Polished presentation —
Gerritson has presumably had some professional media training. She’s done national TV interviews. She’s spoken at dozens of events in Alabama and around the country. She’s delivered impactful testimony before a U.S. House panel. All of that experience is going to pay off during her run for Congress.
She’s already shown herself to be an effective communicator during the rollout of her campaign. Her comments to the media have come across as fiery, but serious, a balance that some first-time insurgent candidates have trouble finding.
— Fundraising —
Gerritson’s fundraising ability is really more of an unknown than a weakness as of right now, but without the personal wealth to self-fund, she does not have an easily identifiable base of donor support to draw from. And starting with a $700,000 disadvantage is never good.
One major question mark is whether outside groups like Heritage Action, The Madison Project or Club for Growth will drop money into the race. Those groups don’t donate directly to candidates, but could somewhat level the playing field with “independent expenditures,” which means buying ads independent of either campaign attacking Roby or boosting Gerritson.
— Absence of an obvious wedge issue —
Roby’s aforementioned voting record will give Gerritson some ammo to shoot at the incumbent’s conservative credentials, but on the big issues that casual political observers will recognize, Roby has generally been on the side of conservatives.
Gerritson has said the Planned Parenthood scandal is what ultimately compelled her to run for Congress. Roby’s been one of Congress’s most vocal advocates for stripping taxpayer funding for the controversial abortion provider, even passing a bill through the House to do exactly that. Gerritson also spent significant time in her campaign announcement speech hammering on the VA and ObamaCare and touting her support for the military. Roby does not appear vulnerable on any of those issues, either.
Unlike other incumbents who were recently defeated (Eric Cantor) or got a scare (Thad Cochran), Roby has maintained her primary residence in the District, returns home most weekends, and maintains a relatively full calendar of town halls and meetings with mayors and local groups. As a result, it will be a challenge to paint her as out of touch with local residents.
The Gerritson campaign may end up making this race entirely about the insider vs. the outsider, and that has the potential to be very effective, but it is difficult to identify a specific issue area that is going to create a wedge for Gerritson to exploit.
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— Cliff Sims (@Cliff_Sims) June 9, 2015