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Stacy Column: Absentees and outside groups factor big in runoffs

By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News

Do not let your heart be troubled. This ridiculously long, grueling primary election cycle is almost over.

On Tuesday, Alabama Republicans will choose their nominees for the U.S. Senate and U.S. House in the 1st and 2nd Districts. You’ll remember that the original runoff election was scheduled for March 31, which earlier this year I noted as interesting because the Legislature shortened the lag time between primary to runoff by two weeks.

Oh, what sweet, naive children we all were just four months ago.

When Gov. Kay Ivey postponed the runoff until July 14 – pretty much the furthest delay possible – you’d have been hard pressed to find someone to predict that, by the time the election came, Alabama would still be feverishly combatting the coronavirus and in many ways be in a more dangerous situation infection wise. But, here we are. It feels like we are coming to the end of a middle school track race in which the coach forgot to blow the whistle and we all kept running until we fainted.

Nevertheless, Alabama will vote on Tuesday. In fact, many in Alabama already have. As of Monday, more than 26,514 voters had returned absentee ballots out of 43,693 who requested them. So even before the deadline, almost 8,000 more people had cast absentee ballots than in the March 3rd primary. But, a runoff isn’t a primary, and so that’s not really apples to apples.

For the best comparison, I asked the Secretary of State’s office about the September 2017 Senate runoff between Roy Moore and Luther Strange. That time, only 5,601 people voted absentee, or less than 1.1% of the vote, according to spokeswoman Grace Newcombe. This Tuesday, 30,000 to 40,000 will vote absentee, perhaps even more. If that’s the case and voter turnout mirrors 2017 levels, the total percentage of the electorate voting absentee would be 5-8%. If turnout is lower than the 2017 – and some well-travelled politicos tell me they think it will be – absentee votes could make up 10% of the vote.

That might not seem significant, but it is for campaigns trying to turnout the vote. Consider that one out of every 10 voters a campaign tries to contact in the final 48 hours might have already cast a ballot. Also consider that 10% of the electorate is impervious to the expensive deluge of last minute TV ads and mail because they’ve already voted. And sure, 10% might not seem like much, but when you think about how close these races could be in a shrunken voter universe, those early votes could be a deciding factor.

Campaigns with financial resources and experienced operatives oftentimes set up absentee vote programs meant to encourage as many of their voters as possible to request a ballot and complete it. I was part of one such effort in Tennessee in the mid 2000s when early voting was first allowed there and I was amazed at how a sophisticated absentee/early voting model sharpened our GOTV program. By Election Day, we had eliminated tens of thousands of voters from our Middle Tennessee target list because they had already voted, making our last voter pushes much more efficient.

In Alabama, we don’t have early voting beyond the absentee process. Also, the state no longer provides campaigns the list of which voters have already cast absentee ballots, meaning campaigns are largely flying blind when it comes to that chunk of voters. It’s not an easy science, which is why I think the campaigns that have invested in effective absentee programs could have an advantage this week.

One reason I’m personally grateful the primary is coming to an end is I’ll finally stop being asked who I think is going to win. At least for now. The truth is, I don’t really know. No one does.

In the Senate race, every poll since March has shown Tommy Tuberville besting Jeff Sessions, sometimes by wide margins. My sense is that Sessions has made something of a comeback in the last two weeks, but I’m not sure it will be enough to overcome a GOP electorate that appears to be over him and clinging to Trump. Could Sessions pull it out? Sure, but it will be a stunning overtime comeback if he does.

In AL-1, Mobile County Commissioner Jerry Carl appears to be in a solid position versus former State Sen. Bill Hightower, but I expect the race to be very close. In AL-2, Dothan businessman Jeff Coleman and former State Rep. Barry Moore also seems to be in a much closer race than anticipated four months ago.

In both races, the biggest development is the aggressive campaigning from the Club for Growth, a Washington-based political group that loves to play in Republican primaries. Club is estimated to have spent more than $1 million supporting Hightower in AL-1 and more than $700,000 supporting Moore in AL-2. Of course, most of that money is spent attacking the other candidate and attempting to undermine their conservative bonafides.

Interestingly, Carl has withstood the attacks fairly well down in Mobile and Baldwin counties, partly because his campaign knew what was coming. Club endorsed Hightower more than a year ago, allowing other candidates to see an aggressive play from miles away. In the Montgomery and Wiregrass-based AL-2, Club’s work was much less obvious. The group endorsed Moore in March and it still wasn’t clear for months how aggressively it would come after the seat, given Coleman’s financial and name recognition advantages. But come it has, forcing Coleman and allied groups to circle the wagons here at the very end to secure the win.

If Club for Growth somehow succeeds at coming into Alabama and picking off two Congressional seats, that will be a major 2020 election story. That’s to say nothing of the Senate seat because, even though the group hasn’t attacked Sessions, it endorsed Tuberville and campaigned on his behalf, so you better believe Club will take credit for that win, too.

Why is it a big story? Because the divisions between the Republican Party’s business/defense/agriculture wing and the activist/Tea Party/”vote no” wing are still alive and well. Sure, the electoral victory Republicans saw in 2016 ended much of the squabbling for a time, but the fiefdoms are back and there’s more money than ever in it. Should Club prevail in these open seats, you’ll see more and more Republican congressmen counting their marks on those dreaded scorecards and watching their backs with each vote. And the issues being scored often don’t align with state interests. (Dana Hall McCain has an excellent column about this that is worth your time).

So all eyes of the political world will be on Alabama Tuesday and not just for the obvious reasons. Usually when that is the case, we don’t fail to deliver the drama. Buckle up.

Todd Stacy is the publisher of the Alabama Daily News. He previously spent 15 years working in politics and government at the state and federal levels. Email him at [email protected].

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