Fresh Stars of Alabama

NRCC Looks to Target Bright and Griffith

Posted February 23, 2009 at 6:32pm

If Alabama Republicans could rearrange the 2010 House playing field, they’d love to put 5th district freshman Rep. Parker Griffith (D) in fellow freshman Rep. Bobby Bright’s (D) southeast 2nd district.

“Griffith has so much baggage. Him being in that second district would be a slam dunk,” Alabama Republican Party Communications Director Philip Bryan said on Monday.

That’s the kind of statement that reveals quite a bit about the campaigns the two Democrats will face as they set out to win re-election in 2010.

Bright has the tougher district for a Democrat to hold, but Republicans continue to see Griffith as the more flawed candidate. That means that as Republicans look to recruit credible challengers against both men, Griffith’s race next year is likely to focus on his character while Bright’s re-election will focus more on the D next to his name.

The 2nd and 5th are two districts deep in the heart of Dixie where Republicans regularly dominate Democrats in presidential elections. In either district, any Democrat who wants to survive has to maintain a very conservative voting record.

That fact was demonstrated early in 111th Congress when state and national Republicans quickly went after Bright and Griffith for voting to elect Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as Speaker.

But since then, the two Blue Dog Coalition members have been very careful with their voting record. Bright and Griffith were two of the Democrats who opposed the economic stimulus package in the House both times.

But Griffith benefits from a long history of 5th district voters sending Democrats to Congress. In fact, the 5th, which is home to a large number of federal government jobs in addition to strong manufacturing, research and technology sectors, has never sent a Republican to Congress. Former Rep. Bud Cramer (D) was elected to the 5th district seat in 1990 and held on despite the increasing Republican dominance of the South during the 1990s.

During Griffith’s 2008 campaign, the toughest attacks he faced from Republicans focused on his record from his days as a doctor at Huntsville Hospital. The National Republican Congressional Committee alleged that Griffith undertreated cancer patients while working as a radiation oncologist at the hospital in the mid-1980s in an effort to increase profits.

The attacks put the Griffith campaign on the defensive for much of the final month and a half, but Griffith beat back those attacks with the help of about $1 million from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and beat commercial insurance broker Wayne Parker (R).

After losing to Cramer twice in the mid-1990s and then to Griffith in 2008, Republicans on Capitol Hill and Alabama said last week that they don’t expect Parker to run again in 2010. But regardless of who emerges from what should be another crowded GOP primary field, Republicans said they aren’t done airing Griffith’s laundry.

Democratic pollster John Anzalone, who managed the DCCC independent expenditures in the 5th district last cycle, said he doubts that Republicans will change the result in the 5th district with the same message.

“The voting public made their mind up on what to believe or what not to believe about [Griffith’s] record as a doctor,” Anzalone said. “The reality is that Parker Griffith as a doctor was respected and was able to come back and refute [those attacks]. … I find it hard to believe it’s going to have any legs a second time around.”

Bright’s challenges when it comes to re-election in 2010 fall along more political and less personal lines.

The popular former Montgomery Mayor benefitted from a nasty GOP primary that eventually saw state Sen. Harri Anne Smith (R) cross party lines to endorse Bright over the Republican nominee, state Rep. Jay Love. Bright’s victory was also certainly aided by the nearly 30 percent of district voters who are African-American and who turned out overwhelmingly to vote for President Barack Obama.

In 2010, Republicans say, they are expecting smaller black turnout and a GOP primary that won’t leave the party nominee hobbled.

Republican operatives on Capitol Hill as well as state officials said the party will do all it can to avoid a competitive primary in the 2nd.

Love, who poured large amounts of his personal fortune into his 2008 bid, said last week that he hadn’t decided whether to run again in 2010. But regardless of who runs, “I would hope everybody would be united behind whoever the nominee is,” Love said.

Oral surgeon Craig Schmidtke, who came in third in the 2nd district GOP primary, also said he was mulling a 2010 bid but had yet to make a decision.

Anzalone said Bright’s strength can be seen in the simple fact that no Republicans are stepping forward to challenge him yet. But even if the 2nd district field has yet to develop, Republicans said they will continue to watch Bright’s voting record closely for chances to tie him to the national Democratic Party.

“They will need him one day,” said Bryan, the state GOP spokesman. And when that day comes, he said, Republicans will be sure to let the voters of the 2nd district know about it.