- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 2, 2010

In a midterm election year already filled with surprises, Tuesday’s Alabama primaries produced two of the most shocking results to date.

Rep. Parker Griffith, a Democrat-turned-Republican, was soundly defeated in his GOP primary by a “tea party”-backed candidate who portrayed the incumbent as an untrustworthy turncoat.

And Rep. Artur Davis, who was vying to become the state’s first black governor and who had been leading in the polls, was trounced by a white candidate who had the backing of several civil rights groups.

“It’s shaping up to be an anti-incumbent year - down with whoever is up,” said national pollster John Zogby. “These are unique times.”

Mr. Griffith, elected as a freshman Democrat in 2008, switched to the Republican Party in December, temporarily boosting his appeal among many voters in a district that overwhelming supported GOP presidential candidate John McCain two years ago.

Mr. Griffith had the backing of the party establishment. But his ties to Washington appeared to hurt, rather than help, as his main primary rival, Madison County Commissioner Mo Brooks, painted Mr. Griffith as a party insider who had lost touch with his district.

Mr. Brooks, who courted conservative tea party voters, won with almost 51 percent of the vote, compared with Mr. Griffith’s 33.4 percent.

GOP officials said Mr. Griffith was a victim of anti-incumbent - not anti-Republican - backlash.

“There certainly is an anti-incumbent sentiment, but it affects both parties,” said Andy Sere, a spokesman with the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), the fundraising and recruiting arm of House Republicans. “And for the most part, it’s a trend that benefits Republicans. The Democrats are in charge, and they’re on the run.”

Yet while the conservative northern Alabama district is expected to remain in Republican hands after the general election, many political analysts say the Republican primary here is evidence that the tea party could cause havoc for GOP candidates elsewhere come November.

“There could be a rare instance where a tea party candidate could win [in November], but this could be a formula for a real problem for Republicans because ultimately there is a center, and the center will vote in a general election,” Mr. Zogby said.

Ryan Rudominer, a spokesman with the NRCC’s counterpart, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the Republican Party overplayed its hand in trying to force Mr. Griffith onto an unwilling electorate.

“Washington Republicans just don’t understand these races, and that’s why a growing chorus has started questioning the competence of the NRCCs political skills,” he said.

In the Alabama governor’s race, Mr. Davis, a four-term House member, riled some traditional black civil rights groups by not soliciting their support. These groups instead backed his primary opponent, state Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks, who is white.

Mr. Davis “just said it was time for African-Americans to decide on their own who to vote for. I think he might have been alone in that sentiment,” said Jennifer Duffy, who covers governors races for the Cook Political Report.

Still, Mr. Sparks landslide victory in the Democratic primary, which he won with 62 percent of the vote, compared with Mr. Davis’ 38 percent, stunned political experts.

“There’s polling that’s off, and there’s polling that’s not even on the same planet,” Ms. Duffy said. “I don’t think anybody expected quite the trouncing [Mr. Davis] got.”

Mr. Davis was an early supporter of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign but voted against the president’s health care plan, a move criticized by Mr. Sparks.

Mr. Davis also may have focused too much on mundane issues like rewriting the state constitution instead of issues that resonated more with voters, some say, like legalizing and taxing Las Vegas-style gambling, a proposal supported by Mr. Sparks.

“It was a combination of all those things,” Ms. Duffy said.

It’s still uncertain who Mr. Sparks will face in the general election. Bradley Byrne topped the five Republican primary candidates with 28 percent of the vote, and will face either Robert Bentley or Tim James in a July runoff.

Unofficial returns show Mr. Bentley with 25.2 percent of the vote and Tim James with 25.1 percent with the results not slated to be official until next week.

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