Friday, January 13, 2012

The Sixth (District) Sense (UPDATED January 14)

We are now a fortnight into the new year. LSU football coach Les Miles has demonstrated that he is incapable of adjusting a defense, or of giving an experienced quarterback a series or two when the starter is ineffective - both of which are gratifying to hundreds of thousands of Alabama football fans.

In all the hoopla about the BCS game, most Alabamians have failed to notice that today is the filing deadline for the 2012 primaries. That’s right, if you’re going to run for anything from President to Chief Justice to Constable, Friday the 13th is your filing deadline. This decision deadline was imposed when the Legislature decided that the state didn’t have the funds to hold a Presidential primary during the early period in most states, and a regular primary in June (with July runoffs). So, in their infinite wisdom, they cut short everyone’s water-testing period, and doomed scores of unopposed nominees in both parties to a wait of most of the year between the decision deadline and Election Day.

That early filing deadline brings us to the Republican nominating contest in the Sixth Congressional District. As of Thursday morning, January 12, there is a contested GOP primary between incumbent Spencer Bachus, State Senator Scott Beason of Gardendale, and Blount County Probate Judge David Standridge.

Be still, my Democratic heart.

This is not a Democratic-trending district - more about that in due course - but the impending collision is not only going to be fun to watch; it has the potential to benefit the statewide Democratic Party in the long run.

Of course, Beason is probably best known as the sponsor of Alabama’s notorious apartheid law, HB 56. He has also gained fame as the state legislator who has made enemies in both parties by wearing an FBI wire while talking to fellow legislators about gaming legislation. In the course of that adventure, he managed to refer to the black residents of Greene County as “aborigines,” while knowing he was being recorded. Bright fellow, Beason. The Republican Senate caucus stripped Beason of his leadership position as chair of the Rules Committee as a result of that revelation. Beason has also been noted for single-handedly vetoing a bipartisan deal among Jefferson County legislators to enable the County to avoid massive layoffs and curtailments of vital public services. For the latter accomplishment, he has been soundly criticized by Jefferson Republican Sheriff Mike Hale, who has been forced to drastically reduce patrols by Beason’s acts.

A third candidate jumped into the GOP primary this Thursday in the form of Blount County Probate Judge David Standridge. There had been scattered rumors that Standridge’s name was being polled in the district, but his filing caught most of the media, and other observers, by surprise.

Normally, a fool of Beason’s caliber, and a rural courthouse officeholder, wouldn’t be a big concern for a ten-term incumbent Congressman. But we are not living in normal times. Beason is the darling of all the zero-tax, zero-brown-people, zero-compassion knuckle-dragging Neandertals of the Tea Party movement. How far that tsunami of excrement has receded since 2010 remains to be seen, but its impact was strongly felt in GOP primaries in Alabama that year. Several incumbent Republican legislators lost their seats to even more extreme Teabaggers, and the Tea Party was widely credited with Mo Brooks’s overwhelming defeat of party switching Congressman Parker Griffith in the 5th District. Even on fundamentals, Bachus might have a little room for concern.

Perhaps more significant, Bachus has a recent weakness - he’s been tainted by scandal. Bachus has been one of the more recent victims of the adage that “you know it’s going to be a bad day when you get to your office, and 60 Minutes is there to talk to you.” The news program kicked over an anthill last November when it featured the hapless Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. Bachus, it seems, made some profitable stock trades immediately after a confidential briefing to his Committee by officials from the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve. This is just the sort of thing that feeds into the general dislike of Congress that every poll with a pulse has been reporting for the last year.

Standridge’s weakness is obvious: he is not known throughout the district, and will not have the name and issue-stance recognition outside Blount County that Beason and Bachus enjoy. On the other hand, as part of the 4th Congressional District in 2008, Blount County cast 23,602 votes in the Congressional race, 19,407 of them for Republican Robert Aderholt. That represents a lot of Republican primary voters who have no history of voting for Bachus, or having been personally treated by his campaigns. (They will have seen his broadcast advertising, to the limited extent he has done it, as Blount is in the Birmingham media market.) That could provide Standridge with a solid base, provided he can build on it with a respectable showing in other parts of the district. Harder to gauge is the impact of the fact that much of Blount County is also in Beason’s Senate district. The addition of the Blount portion of the district replaces large parts of Tuscaloosa and St. Clair Counties, which had previously been part of the district, depriving Bachus of a significant number of voters to whom he is the familiar incumbent.

Against these weaknesses, Bachus is reasonably well financed. In the most recent reporting period, through September 2011, Bachus had $944,401.00 cash on hand and no debts. A key point to watch will be his fourth quarter/year end report, which will reflect his ability to raise money as rumors of a Beason challenge grew. As the chairman of the Financial Services Committee, he should be able to raise additional cash in a big hurry, though it will be awhile before additional reports are due. Bachus also has the obvious advantage of incumbency and name recognition. He has been in the Congress for 20 years now, and represented a large chunk of this district in the Legislature for a decade before that. An Alabama member of Congress of Bachus’s seniority hasn’t been defeated in an election since the 1964 Goldwater sweep. Since 1964, only the 1980 Republican primary defeat of moderate Congressman John H. Buchanan by religious fundamentalist Albert Lee Smith approximates such a loss by a senior member. And the Buchanan loss has to be a troubling precedent for Bachus to contemplate.

So how does the race handicap at this point? That’s hard to say. Country club, party hack, and courthouse Republicans are apt to stand pat with Bachus. The business community is beginning to realize that the economic costs of 1960’s segregation are being resurrected in the form of Beason’s 2010’s anti-immigrant racism, and are apt to oppose him. Beason is obviously the darling of the racist, religious, and no-government right. His state senate district is fully nested within the Congressional district, giving him a treatment history of over 12 years in the Legislature with the voters in his district. Beason will not be able to match Bachus’s money, but he has shown himself to be adept at getting his message to his voters with free media. Standridge, who lacks a natural financial base, may have to hope for the collapse of either Bachus or Beason, and try to find a way to get into a runoff with the other. In those circumstances, Standridge would have a real shot. I will be waiting for polls, but it’s hard to see how this race resolves without a runoff.

As for the Democratic benefits? This is going to be a very dirty, bloody fight. Look for the negative to go up early, and be a big part of both Bachus’s and Beason’s strategies. Standridge’s smartest play would be to let the other two guys do the cutting. The national GOP leadership may make some Super PAC funds available to Bachus for negative on Beason, just to discourage challenges against incumbents. What is even sweeter, this bloodbath will be taking place in the Birmingham media market, which includes nearly half the state’s voters. One of the state’s most prominent representatives in Washington, and one of its most prominent members of the Legislature, are going to get slandered, cussed, tarred and feathered not only in their own GOP stronghold district, but in swing districts we will be targeting for takeback in the 2014 Legislative elections. Beason will have to attack Bachus on ethics, undercutting the GOP message that it is the sole repository of ethical government. Bachus will have to attack Beason on immigration, reminding bankers, Realtors®, insurance agents, and other historically bedrock Republican voters all over Alabama, that the GOP message of hate is bad for business. This all can only do serious damage to the Republican brand, and perhaps leave this district significantly more competitive in November. To borrow one last reminder of the BCS weekend and its Big Easy location, Permettez les bontemps, comme la MarĂ©e, roulez!


UPDATE

After I posted yesterday morning, surprises happened in this race, in the form of not one, but three new candidates.

The biggest splash was made when Tuscaloosa businessman Stan Pate got in the race. Pate is known for ... well, for being Stan Pate. Pate’s personality is somewhere on the scale between “iconoclast,” and “bull in the china shop.” His entry even dovetails nicely with my BCS football references. Those who remember Alabama’s last trip to the Championship in January 2010 will recall that there was an airplane banner circling the Rose Bowl, calling for the impeachment of “corrupt Alabama Governor Bob Riley.” We can thank Mr. Pate for financing that flight; he and Riley have long been at odds, and Pate has also paid for billboards alleging that Riley was paid off by Mississippi Choctaw casinos. That Bob Riley hasn’t sued multimillionaire Pate for defamation (which would require Riley to testify under oath as to his Choctaw ties) speaks volumes. Pate also notoriously, in 2009, confronted a hapless manager of a closing Tuscaloosa steakhouse, of which Pate was the landlord, with a shotgun. Pate claimed the restaurant’s bank, which had a lien on the restaurant’s fixtures, was not entitled to repossess them. Not only did the bank get the fixtures; Pate was convicted of menacing in Tuscaloosa Municipal Court. After being convicted again on appeal and receiving probation in the Tuscaloosa Circuit Court, Pate appealed to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals, where the case is reportedly pending.

It should be obvious the impact Pate can have on this race - he is a multimillionaire who can self-finance to an unlimited degree. Whichever of the original candidates is his original target can expect to be pummeled with negative. What is not apparent at this point, is who that target will be. For that matter, the volatile Pate could turn his guns on anyone in the race; he notoriously turned on Governor Bentley during the 2010 gubernatorial campaign when he felt Bentley wasn’t hostile enough to the Riley clique.

Two other surprise candidates jumped in at the eleventh hour. One is Al Mickle, who ran as a write-in candidate in 2010; he will presumably be an asterisk in this race. Another is Birmingham lawyer Justin Barkley, a Harvard graduate who represents businesses in labor and employment law disputes. Barkley’s jump into the race raises the question of whether the Birmingham white-shoe business-banking-legal community is hedging its bets on Bachus. Not only is Barkley a rookie candidate, a quick search of FEC donor records indicates he’s never given to a federal candidate before. He is going to need some serious coin to overcome his lack of name recognition in this battle of longtime media stars. Perhaps he hopes to benefit from some confusion with 6th District native Charles Barkley.

Pate’s deep pockets will only serve to boldface what I originally wrote about the Birmingham media market being deluged with negative against prominent Republicans. This donnybrook can only help Democrats at many levels. And unless the GOP goes with a baggage-free nominee like Standridge or Barkley, this district could be the most vulnerable to a Democratic win since Bachus edged Democratic incumbent Ben Erdreich in 1992 by a 52.3%-45.0% margin.

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