Inside the Statehouse

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Steve Flowers

Incumbency Reigns Supreme in State Senate

By Steve Flowers

Being an incumbent state senator in Alabama is like owning that seat. The level of reelectability odds is probably better than that of an incumbent congressman, which is about the same as being elected to a seat in the Russian Communist Politburo.

Being a freshman state senator in Alabama is a more powerful position than being a freshman U.S. congressman. Especially if you want to affect public policy.

Many times, a 50-year old, successful person, who is interested in seeking a representative role will approach me and seek my advice about running for either a state senate seat or an open congressional seat. I will quickly advise them that as a state senator you are one of 35 and you immediately have an impact your first year as a state senator. However, if you win a congressional seat, you are one of 435 and because of the seniority system, it will be 15 years before they know your name in Washington and 25 years before you are chairman of a committee and then it is time to retire.

In the 35-member Alabama Senate, there are 27 Republicans and 8 Democrats — a pretty super-majority for the GOP. Twenty-four of the twenty-seven senate Republicans are running for reelection. Republicans Jimmy Holley, Del Marsh and Jim McClendon are retiring. These seats will be filled by another Republican. Therefore, when the senate organizes next January, the 27 to 8 supermajority will remain the same. The lines are drawn to protect incumbents on both sides of the aisle. The Constitution provides the power of the pencil for legislators to draw their own legislative districts.

Seventeen of the 24 Republican incumbents have no opposition in the Republican Primary. Of the seven Republican senators who drew a Republican opponent, they only got an opponent the last day of qualifying and their opposition is token at best. All 24 Republican incumbents will be reelected. If my prognostication is correct, that is a 100% re-electability rate. 

There are only two GOP incumbents that were first thought to have viable opponents. Tom Whatley, at first blush, was rumored to have a race. However, polling and fundraising reveal he will win easily. The only interesting race may be in the Huntsville area where incumbent Tom Butler is being challenged by Bill Holtzclaw, who previously served in that senate seat.

The rule of incumbency also prevails on the Democratic side of the aisle. There is only one Democratic seat open. Priscilla Dunn holds the post in name only. She has never attended a senate day in Montgomery for this entire quadrennium. The Senate has in essence been operating with 34 senators. In actuality, the Democrats have only seven senate seats. There are 150,000 residents of Jefferson County who have had no voice or vote in the Alabama Senate for four years. There are two Democratic House members vying to fill this seat, Merrika Coleman and Louise Alexander. Coleman is favored to win this open Senate seat. 

The cadre of leadership on the Democratic side will return, including powers Bobby Singleton, Rodger Smitherman and Vivian Figures. Hank Sanders will return to represent Selma and the Black Belt after a four-year sabbatical. His daughter was in the seat this last quadrennium. 

The entire leadership of the Republican-led Senate will return unopposed, including Greg Reed, Jabo Waggoner, Clay Scofield, Arthur Orr, Greg Albritton, Steve Livingston, Gerald Allen and especially Clyde Chambliss. They will be joined by a superstar freshman class, who will become even more powerful. This class of leaders includes Will Barfoot, Garlan Gudger, April Weaver, Sam Givhan, Donnie Chesteen and a trio contingency of Baldwin/Mobile senators Chris Elliott, Jack Williams and David Sessions. Another member of this sterling class, Dan Roberts of Jefferson, has an opponent but will be reelected.

The three open Republican seats and one Democratic open seat will give us some interesting senate races to follow.

One of, if not the most important ingredients which creates the power of incumbency, is the almighty campaign dollar. Money is the mother’s milk of politics. Most of this campaign money comes from Special Interest Political Action Committees. Ninety percent of those special interest dollars goes to incumbents. Thus, over 90% of Alabama state senators are reelected.

See you next week.

Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist.  His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at:  www.steveflowers.us.

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