Alabama candidates spar over outside group's role in runoff
By Felicia Sonmez
Six weeks after Alabamans went to the polls in the state's primary, they'll vote again Tuesday in a runoff to decide the Republican nominee for governor -- and the result could be a surprising upset.
Bradley Byrne, a former state chief of community colleges and a former state senator, is facing state Rep. Robert Bentley. Byrne finished first in the June 1 primary with 28 percent of the vote, while Bentley narrowly edged out businessman Tim James -- son of former governor Fob James -- for the second-place spot.
While Byrne finished more than 13,000 votes ahead of Bentley in June, recent public polling shows that the onetime front-runner has slipped into second place and now trails Bentley by as much as 20 points. The winner will face state Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks (D) in November.
The turnaround has come amid spirited campaigning on both sides. Both camps began airing their closing TV ads over the weekend: Byrne's is a positive spot touting him as a Christian conservative and "family man," although it also takes a shot at the "special interests" that are "stealing our primary." Bentley's highlights his promise not to "take a salary until Alabama reaches full employment."
Of the two candidates, Byrne has enjoyed greater support from the GOP establishment: He's backed by Reps. Jo Bonner, Mike Rogers and Spencer Bachus; Gov. Bob Riley announced on Friday that he will also vote for Byrne. Bentley, meanwhile, has been backed by several of James's former campaign staffers (although James himself has not made an endorsement).
Byrne has also outraised his rival by more than three to one: He has collected more than $2 million in contributions, while Bentley has taken in $621,000.
Bentley's campaign contends that the race's recent shift in momentum is because of Byrne's establishment backing.
"It's an anti-establishment year, and Bradley Byrne decided he wanted to identify his campaign with the Republican establishment," Bentley spokesperson Bryan Sanders said, adding that voters are "going to see one of the most extraordinary upsets of the 2010 election cycle" Tuesday.
But Byrne's camp contends that outside groups -- the Alabama Education Association in particular -- are responsible for the change in the candidate's fortunes. Byrne communications director Marty Sullivan said that the AEA has run $2 million in attack ads slamming Byrne over the past several weeks; the group has also been encouraging Democrats to vote in the open election.
Bentley has "moved up in the polls because he didn't go negative," Sullivan said, adding that if Bentley wins, Democrats "will have elected the Democratic nominee, and they will have elected the Republican nominee."
(Worth noting: Last week, Marengo County Republican Party Chairman Andy Renner was forced to step down following revelations that he'd been working with the AEA in an effort to sink Byrne's candidacy.)
Bentley's camp disputed the idea that it's been working with the AEA or with Democrats. "Nothing could be further from the truth," Sanders said, adding that Byrne "has been consumed with the AEA" from the start.
Bentley also took a shot at Byrne as the candidate more in tune with Democrats, noting that Byrne is a "former Democrat trial lawyer who voted for Bill Clinton" and became a Republican in the late 1990s.
Given the Alabama Republican Party's open runoff (which allows Democrats who voted in the June 1 Democratic primary to vote in the GOP runoff), Democrats may indeed play a role in Tuesday's race -- the question for both candidates is how much.
July 12, 2010; 1:53 PM ET
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