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Democrats make moves for North Alabama legislative seats

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Created after the 2016 elections with the goal of electing progressives in north-central Alabama, the Persistence Political Action Committee raises funds primarily through two ticketed events each year. 

With limited money, PAC chair Karen Corp of Huntsville said the group is selective in its contributions. Leading to November, it is focused on about eight races, ranging from local school boards to the Alabama House of Representatives and Senate. It looks for strong candidates with impressive resumes. And a chance.

“(They) have to have a shot,” Corp said. “We don’t just give money to someone because they’re running, even if they agree with the things we agree with. If they don’t have a shot, we’re not going to give them money.”

Statewide, there are eight Alabama Senate races between Republicans and Democrats on the Nov. 8 ballot. In the House, there are 25. Several of those races include popular incumbents, while others are open seats after a large number of legislative retirements this year, especially in the House. There is also a slate of Libertarians running.

If Democrats have any chance of picking up a seat from the GOP supermajority, it may be in north Alabama. There are several factors in play — including bright candidates and changing demographics. Still, Democrats will have to fight hard to gain ground in what is still largely Republican territory.

“I do think Madison County is already showing signs, like other urban centers generally, of becoming more competitive,” said Jess Brown, a retired professor of political science at Athens State University. “It’s still a Republican leaning county, but it’s less Republican today than it was a decade ago.” 

The Persistence PAC has given $15,000 to Kimberly Lewis, who is challenging GOP incumbent Sen. Tom Butler, R-Madison. Lewis is a Madison County native, business owner and was the first Black woman elected board chair of the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce.

Brown said the boundary changes to Senate District 2 coupled with Lewis’ resume could make that race competitive.

Butler, who has served in both the Senate and House, defeated a Democrat challenger in 2018 with 54.3% of the vote. In May, he held off a challenge by Republican Bill Holtzclaw, who previously held the seat, with 59% of the vote. Because of that primary, Butler has spent more than $500,000 to date this election cycle. Lewis, as of earlier this month, actually had a slight cash-on-hand advantage over Butler. 

Brown said Democrats have done a better job of recruiting candidates who have ties to business communities and new wealth in the Huntsville area.

House Minority Leader Rep. Anthony Daniels, D-Huntsville, who has a Libertarian challenger, said he sees the open seats this year as competitive with new Democrat candidates. 

“I think you’re seeing individuals who in the past stayed on the sidelines, but they’ve now decided they’re tired of policies that are not reflective of the general public,” Daniels said.

Democrats in north Alabama are pro-growth, according to Daniels.

“We want to make sure that the caliber of representation is reflective of the community,” Daniels said. 

Persistence PAC also gave $15,000 to Democrat Marilyn Lands, who is running for House District 10. That southwest Madison County district is open because of the retirement of Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison. David Cole is the Republican nominee. He was unopposed in the GOP primary after Anson Knowles, who serves on Madison County’s GOP executive committee, was removed from the ballot because of his prior work for the Libertarian Party. 

“(House District 10) probably has the biggest chance of flipping in the whole state,” Corp said. “Of course, that has to do with redistricting. It also has to do with Huntsville and Madison County. We’re growing bizarrely fast.”

Ball agrees and said his district has become “very purple.”

“It’s going to be very competitive,” said Ball, who is leaving the Legislature after five terms. He said he feels good about his decision not to run again because either Lands or Cole will do a great job representing House District 10.

Madison County has grown by more than 60,000 people since 2010, according to census estimates, and is now home to the state’s largest city. While Corp said she knows not all young people are liberals, she said she thinks that growth, especially among young adults, could at least give Democrats “a more even shot” at being elected.

A lot of that growth has been fueled by federal investments at Redstone Arsenal, including a Federal Bureau of Investigations office.

“I don’t see FBI employees as a bastion of liberalism,” Brown said.

As of the August campaign finance filings, Lands had a slight fundraising lead over Cole. But with more than two months until Nov. 8, Brown said he thinks the GOP candidates will get plenty of funding.

“I would imagine that ultimately, the basic power structure in Montgomery will line up and support the Republican ticket,” Brown said.

Brown said he’ll also be watching the Senate District 7 race, where incumbent Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville, is challenged by Democrat Korey Wilson. The demographics of that district are changing, but for now Brown said he thinks it’s solidly GOP. 

Another open seat is House District 25, straddling the Madison and Limestone county line and long held by retiring Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia. Republican Phillip Rigsby and Democrat Mallory Hagan are vying for that seat. 

The Persistence PAC also gave $10,000 to Democrat Wesley Thompson, who is running for the open House District 3 seat in the Shoals against Republican Kerry Underwood. The seat has most recently been held by Republican Andrew Sorrell. So far, Underwood has a significant fundraising advantage. 

Daniels also said he thinks the state’s 2019 near total ban on abortion, passed by the Republican supermajority, and the June U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe could help Democrats, especially in suburban and more urban areas.

Sixty percent of voters in red-leaning Kentucky earlier this month chose to uphold abortion rights.

If abortion rights drives a spike in turnout in Alabama, it’ll come from already registered voters. New voter registrations have actually decreased below average in the weeks since the Dobbs’ decision, Secretary of State John Merrill told Alabama Daily News last week. In May, when there were GOP U.S. Senate and gubernatorial primaries, turnout was about 23% of registered voters.

For several reasons, there are races to watch in north Alabama.

“Madison County is an anomaly in Alabama politics,” Ball said. “It’s such a melting pot from so many other places.”

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