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Inside Alabama Politics – December 21, 2021

By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News 

Senate race heats up

Back in April, about the time Mo Brooks was being endorsed by former President Donald Trump, if you’d have asked just about any Alabama politico who would be the state’s next U.S. Senator, they’d confidently tell you the congressman from Huntsville. Brooks just had too much going for him with the GOP base: he gained national notoriety for starting the election challenge effort in Congress, he had a prominent speaking slot at the Jan. 6 rally, and, of course, gained the endorsement of the person who matters the most in Republican politics.

Flash forward eight months and that is no longer the conventional wisdom among those who know in Alabama politics. Poll after poll has shown Brooks’ frontrunner status slipping.

Let’s go back to August when an Alabama Daily News poll conducted by Cygnal showed Brooks with a sizable lead of 42% to 18% over Katie Britt. A nearly identical poll conducted by the same pollster on behalf of a Britt SuperPAC in November showed Britt leading Brooks 24% to 22%, with the upstart Mike Durrant pulling 9%. Another poll conducted by the Strategy Group on behalf of the House GOP Caucus showed Brooks leading Britt 28% to 23% with Durrant at 7%. Finally, in December, a McLaughlin & Associates poll conducted for the Alabama Forestry Association showed a tight 31.4% to 26.2% race between Brooks and Britt in a four-way ballot test, with Britt actually overtaking Brooks when the ballot was narrowed to just the two candidates. Here are those poll questions:

IF THE REPUBLICAN PRIMARY ELECTION FOR U.S. SENATE ON TUESDAY, MAY 24TH, 2022 WERE HELD TODAY AMONG THE FOLLOWING CANDIDATES, FOR WHOM WOULD YOU VOTE?

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NOW, AMONG A SMALLER LIST OF CANDIDATES, IF THE REPUBLICAN PRIMARY ELECTION FOR U.S. SENATE ON TUESDAY, MAY 24TH, 2022 WERE HELD TODAY, FOR WHOM WOULD YOU VOTE?

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It’s too early to say the Brooks campaign has imploded, but there’s no question that his status has the clear frontrunner has eroded over the last five months. That narrative is only bolstered by the news earlier this month that Brooks is shaking up his campaign team and bringing in new staff and consultants. Robert Cahaly of the Trafalgar Group will be the new pollster and Fred Davis will be the new ad man. Both are well-respected in GOP circles and have big time wins on their resumes. Forrest Barnwell-Hademeyer is the new campaign manager. The Brooks camp spun the moves positively as “bringing in the A-Team,” but you don’t change consultants in the middle of a campaign if there isn’t a serious problem. All that said, Brooks’ problems could be solved overnight should Trump decide to truly engage in the race by doing appearances and recording paid advertisements for his campaign (more on that later).

Not all politics can be summed up with sports analogies, but there is an apt one in this situation. When your favorite football team is floundering and just can’t seem to get it right, it’s important to remember that there’s another team on the field doing all it it can to make that happen. In the case of Alabama’s Senate race, that is definitely true. Brooks’ slide has not happened in a vacuum. Instead, it has coincided with the impressive rise of Britt. Most political observers can be forgiven for underestimating Britt given Brooks’ aforementioned strengths early in the race, but no one is doubting her now. Britt’s combination of hard work on the campaign trail, strong fundraising and subsequent climb in the polls has solidified her as a top contender.

And there is another contender emerging: Durant. For Durant to go from virtually unknown statewide before his October announcement to polling at 16.6% in the aforementioned McLaughlin survey is pretty impressive. Of course, it is virtually all due to paid media, showing the power of radio and television ads toward building name recognition. In fact, an internal Durant poll obtained by Inside Alabama Politics showed him second to Brooks and leading Britt on a four-way ballot test. The same poll showed Brooks slipping by 16.5 points since June as competition emerged.

 

There’s a long way to go in this Senate campaign – 153 days in fact. Still, it is not difficult to see the trend lines.

One source who’s success in Alabama politics can’t be questioned told IAP, “There’s going to be a runoff alright, but you watch, it’s going to be between Katie and Durant.”

 

Running for Governor 

While we’ve long known state’s airwaves and mailboxes would be filled with Senate campaign ads, but now it appears that race won’t be alone. The governor’s race is also heating up, at least in terms of legitimate entrants putting their name on the ballot. Lindy Blanchard and Tim James are in. Blanchard’s big announcement took place earlier this month and James is waiting until after the new year for a formal event. But, they are both in the game challenging Gov. Kay Ivey in the Republican primary.

There are two significant developments regarding Blanchard and her campaign. First, she hired Susie Wiles, a Florida-based political consultant who helped Ron DeSantis win his race for governor four years ago. Wiles is high up in Trump world and, before Trump, was a well-respected political consultant. Those two distinctions don’t often coincide. It remains to be seen just how hands-on Wiles plans to be in the Blanchard campaign. Sometimes top consultants like that will lend their name and some general direction to long shot races, but not fully engage. But, if Wiles truly gets her hands dirty it could be a boost to Blanchard. The other development is that Blanchard has put $5 million of her personal wealth into her campaign account (see below).

That’s obviously a lot of money. In fact, it’s more than Ivey has. While December’s fundraising numbers aren’t in yet, campaign finance records indicate Ivey has about $2.6 million in her account.

What really matters with Blanchard’s money, though, is how she spends it. Campaign gurus tell Inside Alabama Politics that she’d need to spend $5 million introducing herself to voters and another $5 million attacking Ivey just to have a chance. Whether Blanchard will be willing to go hard negative against Ivey is the subject of much speculation in political circles. During her announcement, the former U.S. Ambassador pulled her punches a bit, only vaguely criticizing Ivey for the state’s public health closures at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Put into an ad that can probably be effective, but it’s not the knockout punch it would likely take to bring down Ivey. Not all candidates like to go negative, either for fear of being perceived as the aggressor or for fear of their own opposition file being emptied on the airwaves.

For Ivey’s part, she continues to maintain a strong advantage with 153 days to go until Election Day on May 24. Inside Alabama Politics has been made aware of multiple polls taken of the governor’s race by an unaffiliated firm showing the governor maintaining a favorability rating of between 65% and 76% among Republican voters. The same firm had micro polling from state legislative races showing the governor with strong leads in Republican stronghold counties of Madison, Limestone, Baldwin, Shelby and Mobile.

One big question is whether or not former President Donald Trump gets involved in the race. The Blanchard camp did a great job of convincing national and state press that Trump had personally pushed Blanchard to get in the governor’s race, when loyal IAP readers know it was really the other way around. Sources tell IAP that such a Trump endorsement in the governor’s race is highly unlikely unless Blanchard somehow catches fire.

 

What’s really going on with Trump?

The former president is looming large in both the U.S. Senate and governor’s races. Alabama is not alone in this regard, as Trump has inserted himself into races in several states, including neighboring Georgia.

The big story this past week has been about whether Trump is reconsidering his endorsement of Mo Brooks in light of the Huntsville congressman’s slide in the polls. CNN’s Gabby Orr and Manu Raju reported that Trump is irritated by the shift in the race and that Brooks’ recent staff overhaul was an effort to get back in his good graces. The story quotes a Brooks’ campaign aide saying, “You’re pissing away a lead and that’s a really awful thing to happen. That has to be incredibly frustrating… there hasn’t been much of a Brooks campaign for several months.”

The Brooks campaign has pushed back strongly against the CNN piece calling it a product of the “fake news media” with his defenders on Twitter and talk radio criticizing the story’s sourcing. They also told AL.com that the story is part of the Britt campaign’s strategy to undermine the Trump endorsement. It’s true that the main sources are unnamed. Still, unless you believe that the reporters made it all up, they still had (1) a source close to Trump describing his irritation, (2) a source from the Brooks camp willing to trash the campaign and (3) multiple sources from the Cullman rally.

The fact is there has been a looming question around Alabama political circles and talk radio for months about how feasible it would be for Trump to either rescind his endorsement of Brooks or simply ghost him when the campaign needs him most. Credit CNN for actually sourcing it and padding it out.

But no one really knows what’s going to happen with Trump, whether it concerns the Brooks endorsement or the potential Blanchard endorsement. What we can at least try to predict, though, is how much weight that endorsement currently carries. In our ADN Cygnal poll from August, we tested Trump’s popularity among the Republican base as well as what influence his support had on their vote. Here are those results.

Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Donald Trump? 

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Would President Trump’s endorsement of a candidate in Alabama make you more or less likely to support that candidate? 

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Without question those results point to Trump maintaining enormous influence among Alabama Republicans. We also have updated numbers from the aforementioned McLaughlin poll taken Dec. 10. The approval numbers for Trump were almost identical. But Jimmy McLauglin also included a specific question about the former president’s endorsement of Brooks. Here’s that question followed by the results.

AS YOU MAY KNOW, MO BROOKS HAS BEEN ENDORSED BY PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP IN THE RACE FOR U.S. SENATE. WHICH COMES CLOSEST TO YOUR OPINION?

1. BECAUSE OF PRESIDENT TRUMP’S ENDORSEMENT, I WILL VOTE FOR MO BROOKS.

2. EVEN THOUGH I SUPPORT PRESIDENT TRUMP AND HE ENDORSED MO BROOKS, I AM STILL KEEPING AN OPEN MIND ON WHO TO SUPPORT.

3. BECAUSE OF PRESIDENT TRUMP’S ENDORSEMENT, I WILL VOTE AGAINST MO BROOKS. OR

4. PRESIDENT TRUMP’S ENDORSEMENT HAS NO IMPACT ON MY VOTE.

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It’s not the same data but one interesting difference to note is how much stronger the Trump endorsement impact is when it is generalized in the August poll versus when it is attached to a specific candidate in the December poll.

There’s no question that the support of Donald Trump is the single most valuable item in Republican politics today. It’s also true that not all endorsements are created equally. And, at the end of the day, people vote for the name on the ballot.

 

 

Gambling legislation: What could really happen?

With just 20 days to go until the 2022 Regular Session (!), the chatter class is buzzing about what the session might look like. Like death and taxes, you can be certain when there is a legislative session approaching stories will be written about the possibility of a gambling bill passing this year. As if on cue, that speculation has started.

Here’s what we know: Sen. Greg Albritton will bring legislation much like what passed out of the Senate last year. That wide-ranging bill would have instituted a lottery, authorized sports betting and legalized casinos around the state with revenues going toward education, broadband internet and health care. Albritton has not said his bill will be identical, but similar. What we don’t know is whether or not the Senate will take it up in what will likely be a shortened session.

It’s easy to forget how close this bill came to passing the House last year. After Senate passage, the Governor’s office engaged in lengthy negotiations with House leaders to come up with a version that could pass the House. It almost did and probably would have had lawmakers given themselves more time to deal with it. By the time it was ready to come to the floor it was the second to last day of the session and tempers were already fragile. But the votes were likely there for passage had the House had another week to work.

That doesn’t mean the votes are there this year. The lawmaker who carried the bill this year is doubtful about a new bill’s chances of success in 2022.

“I’ve been involved in conversations recently, but I think after talking with some other colleagues in the House, especially on our caucus side, I think it’s going to be very, very, very difficult, if not borderline impossible, to get anything out this next session,” Rep. Chris Blackshear, R-Phenix City, said.

He said he thinks the gambling issue needs to be addressed in a special session, just like prison construction was this year and the gas tax increase was in 2019.

“Take out all the other moving parts of a regular session,” he said.

Blackshear said he’s still supportive of the comprehensive bill and said there are indisputable facts about gambling in Alabama.

“One is that it exists in the state today, that’s a fact,” he said. “It’s also a fact that it is unregulated… And the third thing is there are people doing it now and money is leaving the state.”

Blackshear thinks Alabamians should get to vote on the issue.

“We think that our constituents make the best decision of their lives every four years when they vote to send us to Montgomery,” Blackshear said. “I think we should give them the same opportunity to decide to see what they want in their state.”

Those state elections are what have some proponents of a gambling bill eager to move ahead. Assuming the votes are there to pass a bill in the current Legislature, that might not be the case for the next Legislature with as many as 25 open seats up for grabs and primary challenges taking place. Also of concern is timing: if the Legislature passes something this year, it can go on the November ballot. Should they wait, the state would have to wait until the 2024 elections or call for a special election, which can be unpredictable.

One challenge any gambling bill will face this year is timing. Multiple lawmakers tell IAP that this will be an extraordinarily short session. Election years always make for short sessions as members want to get back home to campaign. This year could be even more so, with some saying they could adjourn Sine Die in mid March, weeks before the full 105-calendar day limit.

 

Spat between Ethics Commission & AG could get serious

It’s no secret in Montgomery that the Alabama Ethics Commission, to include staff, and the Alabama Attorney General’s Office, do not get along so well. Over the years there have been dust ups big and small in everything from public disagreements at commission hearings to letters back and forth arguing over their respective turf.

At issue is the fact state law gives both the Ethics Commission and the AG authority to enforce the Ethics Code. Given that overlap in responsibility, there are bound to be turf wars. The latest one has the AG pulling rank over the Commission by way of the Deputy Attorney General process. State agencies with law enforcement responsibility have a deputy attorney general or two with the authority to bring charges against violators. The Ethics Commission is one of those agencies. However, only the Attorney General’s Office has the authority to approve and sanction deputy attorneys general, including that of the Ethics Commission. And, as it now stands, the Commission is without a DAG to carry out its enforcement work. Sources tell IAP that this is by design because the AG’s office believes it is much better suited for investigating violations of the Ethics Code and enforcing the law. It is, after all, a constitutionally-created entity with a 200 person staff headed by an elected official, whereas the Ethics Commission, created by statute in the 1970s, has ten members and about ten staff. The Commission obviously disagrees and has in turn slowed the referral cases of potential violations to the AG’s office. The feeling at Ethics is that the AG’s move to pull the DAG is personal stemming from the RAGA campaign finance investigation from 2018.

Sources with knowledge of the situation say this could come to a head in two ways. In one scenario, one of the agencies could file suit against the other and go to court to let a judge figure out who holds sway. In another, the Legislature could intervene and revise the Ethics Code to work out the disagreement. Yet, it seems highly unlikely lawmakers would want to touch the Ethics Code during an election year session. Playing the track through to the end, both scenarios could happen. If the dispute ends up in a messy court battle, the Legislature may have the impetus it needs to address the situation. It could even be directed to address it by a judge. That could give the Legislature the excuse it needs to fix long-standing problems with the Ethics Code in the name of following a court directive, much like the prison situation.

 

Reading between the lines on prisons

Speaking of prisons, there were some nuggets you might have missed in all the brouhaha surrounding the resignation of ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn and the subsequent appointment of John Hamm as his successor. After ADN/IAP initially broke the news, Mary Sell contacted state lawmakers who are involved in the prison issue for their reactions. Prisons is an issue on which Republicans and Democrats rarely agree, but in this case there was some agreement among party leaders about the future of corrections.

State Rep. Greg Albritton, who chairs the Senate General Fund Budget Committee, and Rep. Chris England, who chairs the Alabama Democratic Party, both suggested the state should combine the Department. of Corrections and the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles.

“There should be a unified vision between corrections and pardons and paroles,” England said. “… Ultimately,  I think it would make more sense if the state of Alabama actually combined the pardons and parole and corrections,” he said.

Albritton agreed and said most states have a combined agency.

“There’s no real good reason to have two separate, competing agencies,” he said.

Said England: “It seems like if those two had a unified mission, we would probably get a better outcome.”

It’s probably too close to the legislative session for a major overhaul like that to take shape this year. Still, word to IAP is this is a real possibility moving forward especially as the state works to demonstrate to the court and the Department of Justice that it is trying to address its myriad prison problems.

 

RSA funds show eye-popping growth

The Retirement Systems of Alabama reported monster returns in 2021: 22.62% for the Teachers’ Retirement System and 22.18% for the Employees’ Retirement System.

That translates into a total investment income of more than $8 billion. According to preliminary numbers reported to the RSA boards in September, TRS had an investment income of $5.7 billion for the 12 months ending that month. For ERS, it was $2.8 billion.

At the direction of RSA chief David Bronner, staff did not recently answer questions from IAP about the returns or what they mean for RSA. More information is expected in an upcoming issue of RSA’s newsletter, The Advisor.

The returns were first discussed at September RSA board meetings. According to minutes, Bronner, in response to a question, told the ERS board the same rates of return couldn’t be expected long term..

“If it was, you should pay me more,” Bronner said. “No, that’d be a tough one to do.”

He also cautioned against expanding benefits or spending all the money in good years.

“(A bad year) will come,” Bronner said. “The good ones and the bad ones. They always do.”

 

Coleman to challenge Moore?

For months there has been quiet speculation among Alabama politicos that Jeff Coleman was considering taking another shot at running for Congress by challenging Barry Moore in the Republican primary. Coleman, of course, was the frontrunner in that 2020 open seat contest for most of the way, but his campaign ran out of gas after the runoff between he and Moore was postponed by three months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Coming that close to winning a congressional seat can leave you with a bad taste in your mouth, and Coleman has privately told supporters that he still has a call to public service. At first, Coleman flirted with the idea of running for the U.S. Senate when it became clear Richard Shelby was retiring. Now, that has shifted back down to the House of Representatives in the 2nd District. Sources familiar with Coleman’s thinking say he is close to a decision and is leaning heavily toward running. He has until Jan. 28 to qualify.

Meanwhile, Moore on Tuesday received the endorsement of Club for Growth, the Washington D.C. political group that was key to his successful run in 2020. Club spent close to $1 million in the AL-2 race, mostly on attack ads against Coleman via radio, television and mail. The endorsement serves as a reminder that they are likely to do the same in a rematch.

 

Big push on reducing recidivism coming

One underlying problem that has added to the overcrowding in state prisons is the rate of recidivism, or inmates being sent back to prison for additional crimes after their initial release. State statistics show an average inmate has a 30% chance of returning to prison at some point after their release or parole. That number drops to 3% when individuals have a job and access to mental health services. The problem is so many lack those things.

The Alabama Commission on Reentry has been batting around ideas to change the recidivism paradigm in Alabama, including by working with the state’s community colleges and the private sector.

While much of the focus in the recently enacted prison construction plan was on new prisons, one key component was the purchase of the Perry County Correctional Facility, which the state plans to use as a joint operational center for the Department of Corrections, the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles. Plans could also include the Alabama Community College System and the Alabama Department of Mental Health. BPP Director Cam Ward told IAP the renovation plans for the facility will soon be ready. He envisions a facility that will offer inmates nearing their release job and skills training as well as mental health care to better prepare them for the outside world and reduce their chances of going back to prison.

Ward said the state could also partner with private sector groups and state associations to enhance job placement with industries.

“Look, we have an economy in which businesses can’t find workers and we also know that if a parolee can get a job, he is dramatically less likely to reoffend,” Ward said. “This could really be a win-win, so we are working on it.”

Since becoming BPP director a year ago, Ward has worked to reopen LifeTech in Thomasville. The successful job-training center for people recently paroled from state prisons was closed in 2020 by BPP’s previous director, Charlie Graddick. Both Ward and Alabama Community College System Chancellor Jimmy Baker disagreed with Graddick’s decision to withdraw from LifeTech. Prior to its closure, LifeTech had provided skills training to more than 6,300 offenders since 2006 and had a recidivism rate of 13%, less than half of the statewide recidivism rate. The ACCS oversaw the educational aspect of the site and provided instructors.

Potpourri

Each edition, we try to highlight the professional moves and shakes inside Alabama’s political world. If you know someone who has gotten a new job in the political scene, let us know by emailing [email protected]

Meredith Brown Wills has been hired on by the Jones Group as its newest lobbyist. Having recently left Maynard Cooper & Gale’s lobby shop, Wills is joining one of the fastest growing firms in Montgomery. Greg Jones has quietly built one of the most successful lobbying firms in the state boasting a team that includes Ross Gunnells, Susan Kennedy and Dalton Dismukes and big time clients like Apple, Pfizer, the City of Birmingham and BCA.

William Heartsill is making the move from government to campaigns. After working two years in the Senate Pro Tem’s office, Heartsill has been hired by the Kay Ivey for Governor campaign as its Communications Director. Heartsill is a Birmingham native, but cut his teeth in Washington working for the Tennessee delegation, including Sen. Lamar Alexander.

Apryl Marie Fogel has officially joined the Lindy Blanchard for Governor campaign. Fogel runs the Alabama Today website and recently took over has the full time host of Straight Talk with Apryl Marie on 93.1 Talk Radio in Montgomery. She will remain host of the conservative talk show under an agreement that she won’t discuss the governor’s race. Fogel has campaign and government experience in Congress as well as Arizona and Florida politics. She’ll be in charge of campaign communications and also have a role in strategy.

Casey Rogers has been hired onto the Ivey Administration as Director of External Affairs. She will serve as a staff contact for federal government offices, as well as Alabama constitutional offices, cities, counties and other organizations. Rogers comes from the Alabama Farmers Federation where she was Director of State Legislative programs. Before that she worked for Congresswoman Martha Roby as Field Representative for AL-2.

Speaking of ALFA, Russ Durrance has been tapped to be the new Director of State Legislative Programs. He will focus on representing Federation members in public policy discussions at the Alabama State House. Federation External Affairs Department Director Brian Hardin said Durrance’s work as director of the Federation’s Poultry, Pork and Dairy divisions prepared him for the new role.

And last but not least, Trace Zarr has moved to the Associated General Contractors as Section Manager for Central Alabama and Director of Governmental Affairs. He will follow Chris Williams who will retire at the end of the year after a 30-year career with Alabama AGC. Trace was with the Department of Senior Services and Medical Association of the State of Alabama before joining Alabama AGC.
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