Spotlight on South Today

Posted July 14, 2008 at 6:23pm

After a six-week primary runoff sprint, Alabama voters will head back to the polls today in two Congressional districts that will continue to be closely watched in the November general election.

In the northern 5th district seat of retiring Rep. Bud Cramer (D), commercial insurance broker Wayne Parker appears poised to claim the GOP nomination over Huntsville attorney Cheryl Baswell Guthrie.

Parker came within about 500 votes of locking up the Republican nomination in a June 3 primary and is clearly the preferred candidate of the national party in this Huntsville-based seat. During the course of the runoff race, Parker has received financial support from National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole (Okla.), House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) and Chief Deputy Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.), among others. National Republicans view the open 5th district seat as one of their best pickup opportunities of the cycle.

Guthrie has gone on a recent media blitz and according to pre-runoff reports, she has outraised and outspent Parker over the course of the campaign. But she still faces an uphill battle after Parker — who was the GOP nominee against Cramer twice in the mid-1990s — outperformed her by 31 points in the June primary.

The winner will go on to face state Sen. Parker Griffith, a conservative Democrat who has been endorsed by the Blue Dog Coalition and who is cut from a similar mold as Cramer. Parker, who easily cruised to a primary win in June, had $370,000 in cash on hand at the end of June and has raised more than $570,000 for his race so far, according to a release on Monday.

Alabama’s 2nd district GOP runoff appears to offer a tighter contest.

The battle between state Rep. Jay Love (R) and state Sen. Harri Anne Smith (R) seems likely to turn on which candidate can better eat into the other’s base of support in a district that has two major population centers.

Love, who throughout the primary contest was the most active candidate on television, was the top performer in the June primary, earning 35 percent of the vote in the six-way race. He ran up large margins in and around Montgomery, where his state House seat is located, to easily make the runoff.

Meanwhile, though she has been well-funded and was the best-known candidate from the southeast “wiregrass” part of the district, Smith just barely took second place in the primary. She earned 22 percent to edge out oral surgeon Craig Schmidtke, who cut into her support in the counties surrounding Dothan. Schmidtke hasn’t endorsed either Republican in the runoff, but Smith is clearly hoping to pick up his supporters and also pick off voters in Montgomery.

Like Parker, national party leaders began to back Love openly last month. But retiring Rep. Terry Everett (R) has remained neutral in the contest, stepping in for the first time last week to warn both candidates that the tone of the race had turned too negative. Everett encouraged both Love and Smith to pull their attack ads and focus on the issues.

The winner will face well-known Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright — who was recruited by both parties before choosing to run as a Democrat — in the November general election.

Along with the Alabama runoffs, national party leaders will be keeping a close eye on today’s primary elections in Georgia, where several key intraparty battles will be decided.

In the Democratic Senate primary, a crowded field means that the contest will probably be decided in an August runoff. The two leading candidates appear to be former state Rep. Jim Martin (who was the 2006 Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor and is the choice of the party establishment) and DeKalb County Chief Executive Officer Vernon Jones.

Also seeking the Democratic nomination are former Atlanta TV reporter Dale Cardwell, scientist and businessman Rand Knight and former Congressional aide Josh Lanier.

Meanwhile, a couple of Georgia Congressmen are facing tough primary battles, especially 12th district Rep. John Barrow (D).

Barrow, who is white, is facing Savannah state Sen. Regina Thomas, who is black and has served in the Georgia General Assembly for a dozen years. The district is about 45 percent black, meaning the primary electorate should be 50 percent to 60 percent black. Barrow has been buoyed by the endorsement of several prominent local black leaders in his campaign, and he caught a huge break when the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), endorsed him in mid-June. But Thomas insists that her grass-roots-style campaign and Barrow’s conservative voting record will carry her to victory today.

Late independent expenditure reports show that the Blue America political action committee spent about $10,000 on newspaper ads in support of Thomas last week.

On the Republican side, John Stone, a radio personality and former Congressional aide, appears to be the leading contender in the three-way race. Republican leaders began signaling their support of Stone in June by cutting checks to his campaign, and last week Stone earned the endorsement of the House Conservatives Fund PAC.

Farther north, in the 10th district, Rep. Paul Broun (R) is facing a tough test in his quest to win his second term after winning a July 2007 special election to succeed the late Rep. Charlie Norwood (R).

The primary sets up a traditional regional matchup pitting the Athens-based Broun against Augusta-based state Rep. Barry Fleming (R).

Fleming has outraised Broun and has gained support among large numbers of state legislators, but Broun has made quick inroads among his Congressional colleagues and received support from several during the primary campaign. And Broun’s polling has consistently shown him well ahead of Fleming. The winner of the primary should cruise to victory in November in this overwhelmingly Republican seat.

Also, Rep. John Lewis (D) is expected to easily beat back a challenge from two opponents.