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Farm Team: Long Line Forming for GOP Hopefuls Looking to Move Up in Alabama

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After decades of Democratic dominance in the Yellowhammer State, Republicans rule almost all of Alabama’s most desired offices —including both chambers of the legislature.

All this new talent means there are few prospects for congressional hopefuls angling for open seats. The result is a stranglehold on ambition within the state GOP.

“There are ambitious young legislators who want to [move up] but they don’t know how to get there,” one Alabama GOP operative said.

Nonetheless, Republicans expect a few of their own to run for governor or Senate someday — even though state operatives don’t expect Sens. Jeff Sessions and Richard C. Shelby to retire for several years.

Republicans speculate that state Sen. Del Marsh, former Gov. Bob Riley and state Attorney General Luther Strange would make the short list of possible candidates for an open Senate seat. Add to the bunch: state Speaker Mike Hubbard, state Treasurer Young Boozer and Lt. Governor Kay Ivey.

Republicans say Gov. Robert Bentley is safe for re-election in 2014. He could have a primary challenge, but a serious opponent has yet to materialize.

The bottleneck situation persists in the House, too. Redistricting shored up all seven of the state’s House members. The delegation is relatively young, and these lawmakers only really worry about challenges from within their own party.

But just in case, the legislature teems with potential House candidates. Republicans say state Sen. Cam Ward is fashioning himself as an eventual successor to Rep. Spencer Bachus, and state Rep. Phil Williams could run for Rep. Mo Brooks’ 5th District seat, should he retire.

Both parties have eyed Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle as a political prospect — but Republicans say he has loosely affiliated with the GOP. Another former municipal chief executive, former Madison Mayor Paul Finley, has caught both parties’ attention as well. His affiliation is also unclear.

As in some other Southern states, the Alabama Democratic Party runs on fumes. Republicans dominated following redistricting in 2012, and that had a negative effect for Democrats on the state and federal level.

Democrats push back on this, insisting there is a way to win statewide or to pick up House seats under the right conditions. They say they believe that a candidate who can distinguish himself from the national party can win in a wave year such as 2008. But the key is to run for an open seat, rather than to challenge incumbents.

“If there’s a retirement, there’ll potentially be a [Democratic] candidate who, in the right circumstances, could do it,” said John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster based in Montgomery, Ala.

With no statewide Democratic officeholders, the lone Democrat in the House delegation, Rep. Terri A. Sewell, is the state’s brightest political star. Sewell garners respect among state Democrats and the African-American community, and she boasts support from EMILY’S List. But it’s unclear if she could leverage her House career into a bid for statewide office in the near future.

Democrats also have Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox on their radar. Maddox has been mayor since 2009, but he earned praise and local fame for his leadership after a tornado devastated the city in 2011.

Former Rep. Bobby Bright and Stephen Black, who runs an educational not-for-profit group, are possible statewide contenders. Democrats are eyeing former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb as well, specifically as a gubernatorial candidate. Otherwise, opportunities are sparse for the Democratic Party to advance through the House.

Republican Rep. Martha Roby won her first race in 2010 by the skin of her teeth. But now Democrats privately concede that she is a good fit for the district and her seat is further out of reach than ever.

But Democrats are watching the 5th District that runs across the northern tier of the state. At some point, the party may look to former Alabama Public Service Commission Member Susan Parker to run, if or when Brooks retires.

Merited or not, Democrats are keeping their heads up.

“With the right candidate, any race is winnable,” Anzalone said.

Farm Team is a state-by-state look at the up-and-coming politicos who may eventually run for Congress. The column runs on Thursdays.

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