The Middle East — in Alabama?

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This is the story of the strangest primary (yet) of this election year. This week, Alabama congressman Earl Hilliard, running for his sixth term, was upset by a young black lawyer named Artur Davis. The lack of GOP challengers means Davis is all but assured a victory in the fall — a victory that will be traceable not to his positions on traditional Democratic issues, but to the vagaries of post-9/11 politics.

Alabama's seventh congressional district, which Hilliard has represented for years, is one of the nation's poorest. It stretches from black neighborhoods in Birmingham down through the rural, cotton-growing counties in the southwestern corner of the state. Most voters here, 62 percent of whom are black, are concerned with improving their struggling economy, paying for rising health care costs and fixing their schools. But when the district held its Democratic primary runoff Tuesday, none of those issues were considered paramount; instead, much of the campaign focused on U.S. - Middle East relations. This twist has all of Alabama and much of D.C. talking.

Earl Hilliard was the first black candidate elected to Congress from Alabama since 1877, at end of Reconstruction. He built a liberal voting record in the House, and his district votes almost entirely Democratic (Al Gore beat George W. Bush by 46 points here two years ago.) Hilliard also has a long record of pushing for better relations with Muslim countries. Sometimes that tendency caused controversy: in 1997, Hilliard visited Libya, defying U.S. sanctions. Davis, a young lawyer, tried to make hay of the issue during his 2000 campaign against Hilliard, but to no avail — Hilliard won reelection easily. This year, however, the Davis campaign was in luck: Hilliard raised more eyebrows when he voted against resolutions supporting Israel and condemning Palestinian suicide bombings, a move that spurred Jewish and pro-Israel groups to throw their support behind Davis.

While campaigning in the district, Davis didn't make much of Hilliard's controversial stands in the district. At home he focused on education, health insurance and the economy. (And he did a particularly good job of appealing to young voters, who are considerably less swayed by the considerable might of the state's Civil Rights-era black caucuses.) Once he was outside the state, however, Davis used the Middle East issue to raise donations. In fact, 82% of his campaign money came from donors outside Alabama. Realizing what was happening, Arab American groups started throwing their support behind Hilliard, who ended up raising 68% of his money outside his state. In 2000, Davis raised just over $84,000 for his campaign while Hilliard raised more than $480,000. This year Hilliard collected over $550,000 and Davis took in more than $879,000. That money allowed Davis to run a lot of ads — and they changed the outcome of the election.

Now those election results are causing a small uproar in Washington, particularly among Democrats. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus criticized House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for not doing more to support Hilliard in his time of need. Republicans are already trying to use their strong support of Israel to win over traditionally Democratic Jewish voters. Will Gephardt and the DCCC have to choose between black and Jewish voters? The voters back in Alabama's seventh district may be surprised to know the turmoil their votes unleashed. But the post-9/11 political landscape is still evolving, and no one is quite sure what effect these changes will have on November's elections.