Who’s running? Previewing Alabama’s 2020 U.S. Senate Election
Alabama has been stuck in what seems like one endless election cycle since 2015. And it’s not going to end anytime soon.
As signaled by the start of Governor Ivey’s first television buy ahead of the November 6 General Election, the summer political lull – a seeming oasis of respite from wall-to-wall political advertising that turned out to be a mirage – lasted a mere 16 days after the July 17 Primary Runoff. That’s 1.6 Scaramuccis for those keeping track at home.
This respite, however temporary, still might be one of the longer political advertising breaks Alabama experiences before December 2020. Besides the upcoming local, statewide and Congressional midterm races that are now gearing up ahead of November, the 2020 U.S. Senate Election looms large on the horizon. Potential Republican candidates and savvy power brokers have already started the behind-the-scenes jockeying that will set the table for defeating incumbent Sen. Doug Jones 27 months from now.
We still have a long way to go before knowing who will go on to defeat Sen. Jones, but serious and wannabee contenders are already emerging from the pack.
Mayor Tommy Battle
Advantages: Battle proved that he has a stronghold of votes in and around Madison County. For both fundraising and turnout, Huntsville’s reliance on federal dollars and policies will be a big boost for him. By staying positive in his television advertising this year, Battle fostered good-will amongst some of the Republican Party faithful and built a base of statewide name identification and favorability for this future run.
Challenges: It’s unclear how Battle will fare in a statewide race in which multiple candidates will be throwing jabs at him, probably all from the right. His social conservative bona fides will come under attack, and pivoting to economic development talking points will not work with the vast majority of Republican primary voters.
Things to consider: Battle’s run for governor became an expensive trial balloon for a future campaign once Governor Ivey assumed office and righted the ship of state. His team was and still is playing the long game.
Rep. Bradley Byrne
Advantages: In what is sure to be a crowded primary field, candidates with strong geographic bases like Byrne’s in vote-rich Baldwin and Mobile counties will have a leg-up as they seek to make a primary runoff. Byrne also has experience running statewide, a resulting name I.D. advantage over Alabama’s other seven members of the U.S. House, economic development success stories to tell, and proven big-league fundraising ability.
Challenges: Byrne will have to prove that he has learned from his 2010 upset defeat and better message to base Republican primary voters.
Things to consider: If Byrne does indeed run for the Senate, this will leave his First Congressional District seat wide open. Expect outgoing state Sen. Rusty Glover, state Rep. Chris Pringle and outgoing state Sen. Bill Hightower to lead a lengthy list of hopefuls for this would-be opening.
Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh
Advantages: This will be a free shot for Marsh, as his sixth term in the State Senate will not end until 2022. His prolific fundraising ability is well-known, but he also has the means to self-finance his campaign, which could give him a significant cash-on-hand head-start on the other elected officials on this list. Marsh’s entrepreneurial successes and experience will also sell well on the campaign trail.
Challenges: Members of the state legislature simply do not have much, if any, name recognition outside of their relatively small districts. Marsh does get some statewide press as Sen. Pro Tem and ran television advertising in the Birmingham television market this primary cycle, but he still has a long way to go in building the necessary name I.D. The silver lining – money and time, two things Marsh has on his side, can accomplish this.
Things to consider: Expect to see Marsh continue advertising on Birmingham television, Alabama’s largest media market, this cycle as he plans a possible 2020 run. Jockeying in the State Senate and the upcoming legislative session will unfold with the future in mind.
Secretary of State John Merrill
Advantages: As a statewide elected official, Merrill has broader geographic name recognition than U.S. Reps. and members of the state legislature. He is also quite possibly the best retail politician in the state and will outwork just about anyone on the campaign trail.
Challenges: While his name recognition is relatively broad in terms of geography, it still isn’t very high. The lesson here is that television and television only can get your name identification up past a certain point. Merrill will need to find a large amount of money to spend on advertising to build on his solid name identification in order to be competitive against better-funded opponents. He does not yet have the type of ready-built fundraising machine necessary to win a big-league statewide race.
Things to consider: This would be a free shot for Merrill, as his second term serving as Secretary of State will last until January 2023. He could use this opportunity to build towards a 2022 run for Governor or another opening a couple years down the road.
Rep. Gary Palmer
Advantages: If no other serious candidate from the Birmingham metropolitan area enters the race, Palmer would have the potential to collect a sizable vote from his district. As a member of the House Freedom Caucus and given his tenure at the Alabama Policy Institute, he will have significant grassroots and Republican base appeal. Palmer not only knows conservative issues, he knows how to message conservative issues. He will be able to raise money competitively from the Birmingham business community and as a sitting Member of Congress.
Challenges: Palmer’s low name identification outside of his district could hurt him.
Things to consider: This would be a risky play for Palmer. He’s in a safe House seat, and the odds of him winning the Senate race might not be high enough to leave a sure thing. If Palmer does try to make the leap to the Senate in 2020, this opens up his House Seat to another 2014-like scrum. Expect former state Rep. Paul DeMarco and former state Sen. Scott Beason to be in the mix again, along with the likes of outgoing state Sen. Slade Blackwell, state Sen. Cam Ward and Jefferson County Commissioner David Carrington.
Rep. Martha Roby
Advantages: Roby is likely to be the only woman with name recognition in the race, and would do well to capitalize on her natural lead with female voters. Alabamians also tend to elect candidates who have the potential of acquiring and leveraging seniority in the Senate. Having just turned 42 last week, Roby could serve for forty years if elected.
Challenges: Even though the runoff was a landslide victory, do not forget that Roby’s support in the Second Congressional District has diminished since 2016. Her triumphant runoff showing, against a Democrat and after being endorsed by President Trump, still only amounted to 48,000 votes – which would’ve amounted to a 51 percent razor-thin victory if turnout from the primary held. What should be a major advantage for Roby has turned into a liability – she has the weakest foothold with her geographic base out of all of Alabama’s Representatives. If Roby is interested in running for the Senate, or even keeping her seat in 2020, she needs to spend much more time in her district repairing her image in the coming year.
Things to consider: If Roby runs for the Senate, there are plenty of viable contenders in Montgomery and the Wiregrass who would be interested in running for her open seat. Outgoing State Treasurer Young Boozer, Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange and state Rep. Paul Lee immediately come to mind.
President and CEO of Coleman World Group, Civilian Aide to the Secretary of the Army, and former Chairman of the Business Council of Alabama, Coleman has the background and authentic charisma that would make for an ideal U.S. Senate candidate. He would have a steep name recognition hill to climb, but he has all the tools to do it.
State Rep. Bill Poole
A practicing attorney in Tuscaloosa, Poole will be serving his third term in the Alabama House of Representatives when the 2020 race for Doug Jones’ seat unfolds. He has chaired the House Ways and Means Education Committee since 2013 and is widely respected for his fiscally conservative policy expertise. Poole is the state’s preeminent rising young political star and has the potential to serve Alabama on the national level in a major way, in the mold of Sen. Richard Shelby.
Better known as “the Yella Fella,” Rane is the richest man in Alabama and a gregarious one to boot. He has long considered a run for office and has the perfect self-financed-outsider credentials to mount a competitive bid. His close friendship with Gov. Ivey would be an interesting factor, too.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions
Never say never. Out of all the crazy Alabama political storylines, even just recent ones, this would not even rank as a surprise. If Sessions did run, he would immediately become the frontrunner and clear out most of the field.
Former Associate Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court Glenn Murdock
And a bunch of not-gunna-happen state legislators. A free shot is always appealing, though.
Rep. Robert Aderholt
If Aderholt does run, he will be a serious contender. However, he is in line to be Chair of the House Appropriations Committee and will not leave the House if this holds true. There are two factors that need to be resolved first:
If Republicans lose the House in November, Aderholt is stuck being the ranking minority member on the committee. He would have to decide whether he wants to play the long game by waiting until the Republicans win back the majority again or take a gamble by running for the Senate.
If the Republicans maintain control of the House in November, Aderholt still has some political maneuvering ahead of him. The Texas Congressional Delegation has promised their votes to Kevin McCarthy’s speakership bid in exchange for control of the appropriations committee. For what it is worth, I expect that the vice president will be working behind the scenes to deliver the chairmanship to Aderholt. However, if Aderholt loses this battle, he may very well decide to leave the House and take a shot at the Senate seat.
Former Rep. Jo Bonner
If Rep. Byrne does not run, that opens up a lane for Bonner to be a serious contender.
Rep. Mo Brooks
Likewise, if Mayor Battle for some reason doesn’t run, Brooks has a serious foothold in the Fifth Congressional District to run from. The likelihood of Alabama losing a Congressional seat also factors in here, because Brooks could be drawn out of his current job and on the hunt for a new one.
Mayor Sandy Stimpson
Same situation as Bonner. If Rep. Byrne doesn’t run, that opens up a pathway for Stimpson.
Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn