In Alabama, A Bellwether Race for House Incumbents
As voters in the Deep South head to the polls for the GOP presidential primaries on Tuesday, a congressional race in central Alabama has turned into a widely watched bellwether for how severe a case of anti-incumbent fever will grip the electorate this year.
The race pits veteran House Financial Services Chairman Spencer Bachus against several challengers, including state Sen. Scott Beason, an author of Alabama's tough immigration law. Beason hopes, at the least, to force Bachus into a runoff next month by holding him below 50 percent of the vote.
Bachus wasn't supposed to be facing much of a race at all. He amassed a $1.7 million war chest; his opponents together raised a paltry $100,000. But the combination of an ongoing congressional ethics inquiry into insider-trading allegations against Bachus and a new anti-incumbent super PAC that has poured money into the race has stirred intrigue from Birmingham to Washington.
The unexpected felling of Rep. Jean Schmidt a week ago by GOP primary voters in Ohio has added to the sense that 2012 could be another year of upheaval after three consecutive wave elections washed incumbents out of Congress.
"Everything's in play, and nothing can be taken for granted," said Richard Gose, vice president of political affairs for the Credit Union National Association, which bought up to $27,000 in pro-Bachus radio ads over the weekend. Gose said the group hadn't decided to buy ads until the Ohio primary results came in, providing "a wake-up call for a lot of folks.''
The same super PAC that spent money against Schmidt--the Campaign for Primary Accountability, which is devoted to unseating incumbents of both parties--has invested about $200,000 in defeating Bachus. Its spokesman, Curtis Ellis, referred to the incumbent as the "Bachanalius of sleaze."
The Bachus race is one of a handful of competitive primaries on Tuesday in Alabama and Mississippi. In both states, runoffs will be triggered if a candidate does not win 50 percent of the vote. Alabama will hold runoffs on April 24; Mississippi's are scheduled for April 3.
In all the contests, incumbents are favored. But the results will provide fresh evidence of how the widespread dislike and mistrust of Congress may filter down into individual reelection bids.
Democrats, who gleefully watched from the sidelines as Schmidt stumbled last week, are hoping for more turmoil in the GOP races.
"It fortifies my belief that Republicans have an inherently unstable terrain," said Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., who leads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "Arguably, you cannot get to the right of Jean Schmidt, and yet she got challenged from the right and lost. So it tells me that they've got a huge structural problem with their base."
Three GOP House freshmen face primary challengers on Tuesday.
Freshman Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., faces a rematch against Parker Griffith, the former congressman who represented the district for a single term before Brooks defeated him, 51 percent to 33 percent, in the 2010 primary.
Brooks isn't the only freshman facing a 2010 flashback. In Mississippi's heavily Republican 1st District, GOP Rep. Alan Nunnelee is running against Henry Ross in a rematch of the 2010 primary he won, 52 percent to 33 percent.
Mississippi's other freshman Republican, Rep. Steven Palazzo, faces a primary in the 4th District against Ron Vincent and Cindy Burleson, who are not expected to pose a serious threat.
Tuesday will also mark the first test of any unrest on the Democratic side of the aisle. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., faces a primary challenge to keep a seat he has held comfortably since 1993. Former Greenville Mayor Heather McTeer is challenging Thompson, who had $1.6 million cash on hand as of Feb. 22. She largely self-funded her effort with a $140,000 personal loan.