Monday, Oct. 11, 2010

Alabama's Second District: Bobby Bright vs. Martha Roby

If the Democratic Party manages to hang onto Alabama's Second Congressional District, it will be because its candidate, Bobby Bright, isn't a typical Democrat. The freshman incumbent is a pro-gun, pro-life, anti-abortion social conservative who voted against the health care reform bill and the stimulus package. An August campaign ad — which notes his opposition to bailouts, bloated spending and the nation's yawning budget gap — portrays a man sprinting away from his party's legislative achievements. "Bobby Bright is an independent conservative," intones the narrator of the folksy spot. "He's one of us." The word "Democrat" is conspicuously absent.

On its face, this district — which spans portions of Montgomery, a swath of its suburbs and parts of the rural, farm-heavy "Wiregrass" counties further south — should be an easy pickup for Republicans. Sen. John McCain trounced Barack Obama here, nabbing 63% of the vote, and when Bright squeaked out a victory in 2008 he became the first Democrat to claim the seat in 44 years. Yet even in one of the nation's reddest regions, Bright has proved a popular representative and a prodigious fundraiser. He's amassed $1.1 million, a hefty advantage over Republican opponent Martha Roby's $567,000, and holds a 6-to-1 cash-on-hand edge over Roby, who survived a primary challenge from Tea Party-backed candidate Rick Barber. Political handicappers have rated the race a toss-up or given Bright a slight edge in the contest.

Bright boasts a biographical advantage as well. One of 14 children born to a poor sharecropper, he worked as a lawyer before becoming mayor of Montgomery. As a mayoral candidate, Bright wasn't compelled to claim a party affiliation, and when he geared up for a bid to replace retiring Rep. Terry Everett in 2008, both Democrats and Republicans tried to lure him to their camp. "He's the only Democrat who could have won in that district," Rep. Artur Davis, who recruited Bright, told U.S. News last year. A member of the moderate Dems' Blue Dog Coalition, Bright has been forced to devote considerable energy to scrubbing away the stigma staining the party. "I'm fighting the toxic political air in Washington ," Bright, who's been known to don a "Fire Congress" T-shirt, said before a town hall last month. "People think this is a Republican area. It's not. This is a conservative area, and I'm a conservative."

Roby, a 34-year-old mother of two who sits on the Montgomery City Council, is doing her best to sow doubts about that. Her policy positions—curbing illegal immigration, cutting spending, lowering taxes, protecting the military and gun rights—are broadly popular in this rural district. But she doesn't have as long a track record as Bright — who has unabashedly promoted the earmarks he's secured for the district, such as funding for military installations and infrastructure upgrades. And it's hard to say how her voting record would differ from that of the incumbent, whose predilection for siding with the GOP forced him, earlier this year, to tamp down speculation that he was on the verge of a party switch.

Roby is trying to draw a distinction between the candidates by tying Bright to Democratic leaders like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is unpopular in the district. "Our congressman voted for Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House," she told the crowd gathered at a town-hall forum in a Dothan, Ala., library in August. "How he voted any other time is irrelevant." Bright isn't embracing Pelosi either; he raised eyebrows with an August quip that the House Speaker could lose her seat or "get sick and die," and this month he became the first Democratic incumbent to say he wouldn't support her as Speaker in the next Congress. Democrats may be seething about the remark, but for now they're likely willing to forgive — if not forget — so long as Bright helps them fend off a Republican onslaught in November.