Sizing up a special election

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Probably the biggest political story of the year is the resignation of 1st District Congressman Jo Bonner. Congressman Bonner left Congress on August 2nd to accept a newly created position as Chancellor of Governmental Affairs and Development at the University of Alabama.

Bonner did a stellar job of representing his congressional district, which includes Mobile and Baldwin counties. He represented the first district for a decade. Prior to that he was the administrative assistant to Congressman Sonny Callahan. Callahan represented the district for 20 years. Jack Edwards was Mobile’s congressman for 20 years before that. The legendary Frank Boykin, “everything is made for love,” was the district’s congressman for 30 years prior to Edwards. Therefore, only four men have served in the seat since 1935. That, my friends, is 88 years with only four congressmen.

Bonner could have stayed in the seat as long as he wanted. He could have done 20 years easily. However, he is in a better position personally. He has doubled his $174,000 congressional salary and chosen a less-stressful lifestyle.

Gov. Bentley has set the special election to replace Bonner for next Tuesday, September 24th. There are a bevy of aspirants. One candidate, Bradley Byrne, removes a potential challenger to Dr. Bentley’s reelection bid. Byrne ran second to Bentley in 2010 and was mulling over another race for governor against the popular incumbent. If he wins the special election for Bonner’s open seat, he will be in Congress. If he loses, he will probably be through politically.

Byrne enters the congressional race as the favorite because of the name identification he garnered during the 2010 gubernatorial campaign. However, if he prevails as the victor in the first district, he will never be in the league with Edwards, Callahan or Boykin. If Bonner had stayed he could have walked in those three men’s shoes. You need to go to Congress at a young age to ever become a player. The name of the game in Washington is seniority. If you do not get to Congress by 45, you have missed the boat when it comes to building seniority. Byrne is close to 60. If he wins, most of his contemporaries from around the country will have served 20 years in the U.S. House and will finally be in line for a committee chairmanship.

In fact, many times a state senator who heads a powerful committee in Montgomery has more influence over public policy than a freshman U.S. Congressman. The perfect example in this open coastal district race is State Sen. Trip Pittman, who opted to forego this open congressional seat chase. Pittman could have been a formidable candidate. However, as Chairman of the Senate Finance and Taxation Education Budget Committee, Trip has more power and can do a lot more for Baldwin County in Montgomery than he could accomplish as a freshman congressman in Washington.

There are nine candidates seeking the Republican nomination to succeed Bonner in Tuesday’s special primary. A runoff will more than likely be needed to get down to the final two. That runoff will occur on Nov. 5th. The general election on Dec. 17th will be a formality.

Byrne is the favorite. However, special elections are a different animal than a regular election. Money and name identification are important ingredients in a general election. A special election hinges on organization and getting your folks to the polls.

The two candidates to watch in this race are State Rep. Chad Fincher and realtor Dean Young. Fincher is a handsome, articulate two-term legislator. He is young and polished and hails from Mobile County.

In a race with this many people, voters many times go with the local hometown boy. The old political adage of “all politics is local,” prevails. Fincher has built a solid conservative record in his eight years in the House. He has been endorsed by GOPAC, a national group that works to promote young Republican leaders.

Young is a former aide and close ally of Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore. This alliance and Young’s toiling in the religious right vineyards may give him the edge with the evangelical vote in the district. Young also probably built some name identification in an unsuccessful race against Bonner in 2010 when he finished second in a four-man race.

Twenty-eight-year-old Wells Griffith could be a dark horse. He is a deputy chief of staff at the Republican National Committee.

Political columnist Quin Hilyer could also be a surprise. However, his polling numbers do not appear to be rising.

Even though organization is important in a special election, money is still the mother’s milk of politics. We will see.