Updated 9:21 p.m. | Alabama Republican Rep. Bradley Byrne launched his Senate campaign Wednesday, kicking off the contest to take on one of the most vulnerable senators in the country: Democrat Doug Jones.
“The main reason I’m running is that we’ve got somebody in the United state Senate, Sen. Doug Jones, who does not reflect the values or policy positions of the state of Alabama,” Byrne said in a phone interview after announcing his Senate run in Mobile.
Jones won a 2017 special election, upsetting former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore. After emerging from a contested GOP primary, Moore faced decades-old allegations of sexual misconduct with teenage girls. A combination of increased Democratic turnout and Republicans who couldn’t stomach supporting Moore led to a narrow Jones victory, the first for a Democrat in the deep-red state in a quarter-century.
Even though Republicans are once again expecting a competitive Senate primary, party operatives largely aren’t worried about history repeating itself.
“If you have the ‘R’ by your name, you are going to beat Doug Jones, especially in a presidential year,” Alabama GOP strategist Brent Buchanan said.
Byrne doesn’t agree.
“If we just sit back and let it go we’ll end up with the wrong person again,” he said. “So this is a strong statement on my part that I want the right person. I think I’m the right person.”
Also watch: First 2020 Senate race ratings are here
Some Republicans in Alabama point to a unique set of circumstances that led to Moore defeating appointed Sen. Luther Strange in the 2017 GOP primary. Gov. Robert Bentley, who later resigned under a cloud of scandal, had picked Strange to fill the seat vacated by former Sen. Jeff Sessions when Sessions became attorney general.
Strange was tainted by questions surrounding his appointment and lost a primary runoff to Moore, despite having President Donald Trump’s endorsement. Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, had blanketed the airwaves during the primary with ads to boost Strange and attack his opponents. SLF declined to comment on its approach to the 2020 Senate race in Alabama.
“I think that the Washington involvement in that race caused the outcome as much as perhaps too many candidates in the race,” said Alabama state Sen. Del Marsh, who is also considering entering the GOP primary. “So I don’t see that happening this time.”
It’s unclear if Moore is going to run again. He said last year he wasn’t considering running for office but “plans change.” Moore’s spokeswoman and former campaign manager did not respond to requests for comment, but some Alabama Republicans don’t expect him to run as he is still trying to clear his name.
GOP candidates besides Moore wouldn’t likely turn off as many Republicans, whose crossover votes were key to Jones’ victory.
Moore’s reputation as a controversial judge who was twice removed from the bench made him unpalatable to some GOP voters from the start of the Senate race. The allegations, first reported by The Washington Post less than five weeks before the general election, exacerbated that rejection.
“There isn’t another Roy Moore out there,” one GOP consultant involved in Alabama races said.
But Byrne called that line of thinking “dangerous,” saying some potential candidates would struggle in a general election, although he didn’t name names.
“Don’t get me wrong, I think it would take some pretty extreme disabilities in order for … a Republican not to win next year,” the congressman said. “But it can happen.”
“We need to be on our guard, have the best person we can put out there and go win this race. And go win it by a big margin so that we don’t have to deal with this again,” he added.
Republicans see Alabama as a prime pickup opportunity. Trump carried the state by 28 points in 2016, and he’ll be on the ballot again in 2020. And Jones won by less than 2 points. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Leans Republican.
Jones is expected to put up a fight, leveraging his massive donor list from the special election and an effective turnout operation. Byrne said he expected the Democrat to outraise him. Jones’ campaign had $2.1 million on hand at the end of the year, while Byrne had nearly $1.1 million in the bank.
Trump loyalty contest
Absent some of the 2017 circumstances, next year’s GOP primary could look more like a typical Republican contest. That means candidates will be battling over their conservative credentials and loyalty to Trump.
Byrne enters the race with statewide campaign experience. The former state senator lost a 2010 gubernatorial primary to Bentley before winning a special election for the House in 2013.
In 2016, Byrne called on Trump to step aside as the GOP nominee, following the revelation of the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump bragged about grabbing women’s genitals. Byrne said Wednesday those comments would not be an issue in the primary. He ended up voting for Trump and has supported the president’s priorities 97 percent of the time, according to an analysis by CQ Vote Watch.
Byrne said he has since occasionally spoken with Trump and has a “great” working relationship with him and his staff, if not a personal one with the president. He said he did not yet want to comment on whether he has spoken with Trump or his staff about running for Senate.
Marsh, the president of the state Senate, said his business background and unwavering support for Trump would separate him from other primary candidates if he decides to run.
Asked if he was referring to Byrne’s 2016 remarks, Marsh said, “I think that is important. It’s easy to listen to the political winds and attack people but … I think that somebody needs to have shown continued support.”
Marsh said he would decide on running for Senate “sooner rather than later,” adding that he has discussed the race with Ward Baker, the former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Baker said he has not been hired by Marsh as a consultant.
It’s not clear if national Republicans will have a preferred candidate in the race. Byrne said he has spoken with McConnell, but declined to comment on those conversations.
GOP Rep. Gary Palmer is “definitely weighing a campaign for the Senate,” but he has not decided yet, a source close to the campaign with knowledge of internal deliberations said.
The conservative Club for Growth released a poll a few hours ahead of Byrne’s announcement showing Palmer and Byrne tied at 27 percent in a hypothetical Republican primary, with 46 percent of respondents undecided. WPA Intelligence surveyed 500 likely GOP primary voters from Feb. 10-12. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
Palmer and Marsh are two names that GOP strategists have mentioned as likely candidates in addition to Bryne. Alabama Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth, who took office last month, has been mentioned as a potential Senate contender, but two GOP sources said he is unlikely to run.
There’s been some speculation that Sessions might run for his old seat after he stepped down as attorney general amid a tense relationship with Trump. Asked if he discussed the Senate race with Sessions, Byrne said he has spoken with him two or three times but wanted to keep those conversations private.
GOP Rep. Martha Roby is also not planning to run for Senate after fending off a primary challenger last year and facing criticism for not voting for Trump in 2016. (She has since worked to repair her relationship with the White House.)
Roby’s spokeswoman said in an email that Roby was not going to run for Senate in 2020. One GOP source said Roby and other potential statewide contenders could be eyeing a run for governor, or Senate in 2022 should GOP Sen. Richard C. Shelby decide to retire.