Dems Land Good Recruit, But Will it be Enough?
A couple of weeks ago I looked at the local demographics and found a district that will be difficult for Democrats to hold. The district contains parts of two counties, Elmore and Coosa. Elmore county is very strongly Republican, while Coosa is just as reliably Democratic. However, the bad news for Democrats is that roughly 80% of the districts' voters live in Elmore county. In 2002, for example, Bob Riley beat Don Siegelman 61/39 in the 31st.
That paints a pretty bleak picture for Democrats. But this week saw the emergence of a candidate who could conceivably keep the district in the Democratic column. Tallassee mayor Bobby Payne entered the race Friday and became the Democratic nominee as he was the only Democratic to file. Payne has been the mayor of Tallassee since 1988 and his profile as a former Auburn football player and small businessman gives him a good foundation from which to appeal to the rest of the district.
Payne also stands to benefit from a competitive Republican primary. Barry Mask, an Elmore county businessman, and Don Whorton, who serves on the Elmore County Commission, both filed to run in the Republican primary. Though both Mask and Whorton are viable candidates they'll have to get past one another before they can take on Payne in the general. Alabama Republicans have historically been able to stay on the sidelines and watch Democrats beat themselves up in the primary. But in this case the shoe is on the other foot. Payne will be able to focus his time and resources on the Feb. 28 general election while the Republicans will be fighting amongst themselves for the next 6 weeks.
However even though Payne already has his general election ticket punched and can credibly run as as the successor to Jack Venable, he will still have his work cut out for him. Though Tallassee is in Elmore County, it is geographically isolated on the southeast corner of the district. In fact, some of the city of Tallassee is in fact in Tallapoosa county and thus not in the 31st District. To construct a winning formula Payne must stay competitive in the Elmore precincts and rack up big margins in Coosa. This is not impossible, but it would require a strong campaign to convince enough of Elmore county to ignore their usual partisan preferences. Indeed even Venable, a political institution in the district, saw his victory margins shrink in recent elections. In 2002 he carried the district with a relatively low 58% of the vote.
Given the trends in the district, Venable himself might not have even been completely secure, so an open seat special election will be that much more difficult for Democrats to prevail. Which is why I was surprised to see the Alabama Democratic Party set such high expectations for Payne. In a press release they described the race as "extremely difficult for Republicans to win" and said Republicans now face "an uphill battle".
Such language makes nice campaign rhetoric, but what if Republicans actually win the district (as is very possible)? By setting the expectations so high, a Republican victory here would look much more momentous. The special election general will be Feb 28 and will provide the winning party with a late shot of momentum before the April filing deadline that may translate into candidate recruitment or retention. If Democratic incumbents or prospective challengers see their party lose the 31st district (a district the ADP is nearly guaranteeing a win in) perhaps some may chose to forgo a 2006 candidacy in anticipation of a GOP wave.
Ultimately, Bobby Payne is a great recruit for Democrats in the 31st district. He is just the kind of candidate who has been able to hold such Republican leaning districts giving Democrats control of the state legislature. But the Republican trend of Elmore county is unmistakable and Payne would have to draw the political equivalent of straight flush to keep this seat in the Democratic column.
This election will serve as a barometer from which to judge the political environment of the upcoming campaign season. A Payne win or even a narrow loss should give Democrats hope that they can continue to resist the Republican tide, at least at the local level. However, if the GOP candidate easily bests Payne, then Republicans will grow increasingly optimistic and aggressive in their attempt to take over the legislature.