Congressional primaries in two Southern states Tuesday will test the political mettle of several freshmen - including Alabama’s Democrat-turned-Republican Rep. Parker Griffith - challengers and political newbies facing an agitated electorate.
The contests in Alabama and Mississippi also serve as an appetizer to a full course of high profile primaries on tab next Tuesday in California, Iowa, Nevada, Virginia and elsewhere. A testy Democratic Senate primary runoff in Arkansas between incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln and Lt. Gov. Bill Halter also is scheduled for June 8.
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.
But Mr. Griffith’s move may backfire as he faces a strong primary challenge in Mo Brooks, a local county commissioner, and businessman Les Phillip.
Mr. Brooks has cast himself as the race’s true conservative, painting the incumbent as a closet Democrat who has supported liberal national icon House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Mr. Griffith, meanwhile, has accused his challenger of being a “career politician” with a history of supporting tax hikes and pork-barrel projects.
And in a series of traded barbs usually only reserved for partisan general elections, both candidates have accused the other of running a negative campaign.
Many are watching to see whether Mr. Griffith’s political fate may mirror that of another party switcher, Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, who lost in his Democratic primary in May a year after leaving the Republican Party.
Mr. Griffith, as reported in the Huntsville (Ala.) Times last week, said Mr. Specter was wrong to leave the Republicans to attempt to win an election. The Alabama lawmaker defended his own party hop, saying he did so not to win votes but to protect north Alabama space- and defense-related jobs against a Democratic majority opposed to missile defense and manned spaceflight.
Little polling has been done in his rural northern Alabama race. But Mr. Brooks had almost $157,000 in campaign money in the bank as of May 12, a respectable amount for a challenger compared with Mr. Griffith’s $214,00.
In west-central Alabama, Democratic Rep. Artur Davis’ run for governor has several in his party scrambling to replace the four-term incumbent. His majority black district, which supported President Obama by more than 70 percent in the 2008 presidential election, appears safe for Democrats. But with a competitive four-way primary race, the Democratic winner - and probable successor to Mr. Davis in Congress - may not be decided until a July runoff.
The two leading candidates are Terri Sewell, a finance lawyer who has launched an aggressive media campaign, and state Rep. Earl Hilliard Jr., whose father Mr. Davis beat in 2002 to win the seat.
Both candidates have picked up high-profile endorsements. Ms. Sewell has the backing of several prominent women’s advocacy groups, including EMILY’s List and the National Organization for Women’s political action committee (PAC). Mr. Hilliard is supported by several labor organizations and the Congressional Black Caucus’ PAC.
Ms. Sewell as of mid-May had almost $121,000 in bank - three times the amount of Mr. Hilliard’s available cash. But Mr. Hilliard, as the son of a former congressman, has plenty of Washington connections. He also worked on Capitol Hill and received a law degree from the District’s Howard University.
Other Democrats vying for Mr. Davis’ seat are Shelia Smoot, a commissioner of Jefferson County, which includes the state’s largest city, Birmingham, and Birmingham lawyer Martha Bozeman.
In northern Mississippi, Republicans are anxious to win back the seat held by Rep. Travis Childers, whose surprise special election victory in 2008 gave Democrats control of the conservative district for the first time in years.
Republican candidate state Sen. Alan Nunnelee has the support of the party establishment, including Gov. Haley Barbour and the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Mr. Nunnelee also has more than twice the campaign dollars in the bank compared with the combined totals of the other two GOP primary candidates: political strategist, author and former Fox News analyst Angela McGlowan, and former judge, assistant state attorney and Europa Mayor Henry Ross.
Mr. Nunnelee has focused much of his campaign criticizing the conservative Democratic incumbent, saying that he instead is the true conservative. Ms. McGlowan, who is courting “tea party” supporters, and Mr. Ross, meanwhile, have tried to portray Mr. Nunnelee as the choice of Washington insiders and not the people of the district.
New Mexico rounds out Tuesday’s primary schedule. All three of the state’s congressional districts are held by freshmen Democrats. And while Republicans are gearing up for general election fights in the Land of Enchantment, the incumbents face no intraparty challengers.