Republicans landed a top-tier recruit Wednesday in a race critical to their hopes of holding the Senate in 2020, when GOP Rep. Bradley Byrne jumped into the campaign against the most vulnerable Democrat up for reelection, Alabama’s Doug Jones.
The Senate is clearly in play in two years: At least a half-dozen Republican incumbents are at risk, including two in states President Donald Trump lost in 2016, and Democrats have already begun to recruit challengers in several of those races. After his shocking special election win in 2017 in deeply conservative Alabama, defeating Jones is the GOP’s best opportunity to flip a Democratic-held seat — making the contest a vital insurance policy for the party to protect its majority, currently 53-47.
Jones narrowly won the Alabama seat after Republicans nominated Roy Moore, the controversial former state Supreme Court justice who faced accusations of inappropriate sexual behavior with teenage girls. Republicans in the state are desperate to avoid the mistakes of that race, when a fractious primary helped elevate Moore over the Senate GOP’s preferred candidate, appointed Sen. Luther Strange.
But another crowded, unpredictable primary could be on the way. Byrne, a third-term congressman who ran for governor in 2010 and lost in the primary, has been hinting for more than a year that he would challenge Jones. At his official launch in Mobile on Wednesday, he highlighted his support for Trump’s wall on the southern border, the Second Amendment, his anti-abortion stance and his support for Justice Brett Kavanaugh, whom Jones opposed.
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"Look at Washington and tell me you don’t see a disconnect between your values and the values you see up there," Byrne said in his launch, appearing with his family. "This is not going to be an easy race. The people that presently hold this seat intend to keep it and they will stop at nothing."
In an interview following his announcement, Byrne cited the same four issues as ones he believed Jones was most vulnerable with Alabama voters.
"The other big difference between last time and this time is Doug Jones now has a record, and it’s not a good record to run on in Alabama," Byrne said.
"He’s against President Trump and Alabama loves Donald Trump," the congressman added.
Jones’ campaign cited Byrne’s loss in the 2010 gubernatorial primary and labeled him a "career politician" in a statement
"It doesn’t matter if Senator Jones has one opponent or 100," said the statement from Jones’ campaign. "His focus is working for the people of Alabama whether it’s protecting our auto jobs and farmers against dangerous tariffs or building health care infrastructure in Alabama’s rural communities."
Byrne is unlikely to have a clear path to the GOP nomination. Del Marsh, the president pro tempore of the state Senate, told POLITICO Tuesday he is “seriously considering” a campaign after passing on the 2017 special election. Some Republicans are calling on Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth to run, though he has not publicly discussed a potential bid and some Republicans doubt he will enter the race. Rep. Gary Palmer is also “seriously considering” the race, according to a source with knowledge of internal deliberations.
Terry Lathan, chairwoman of the Alabama GOP, said Republicans are ready to “lock arms with a candidate” against Jones regardless of who emerges from a potentially crowded, divisive primary.
“We anticipate a war,” Lathan said, predicting massive financial investments from both parties flooding the state. “There’s going to be a busy, loud race. But with Donald Trump on the ballot in one of Trump’s highest approval states, that’s going to be ‘advantage GOP.’”
The primary itself could become a war. Marsh, in an interview Wednesday, alluded to a potential line of attack against Byrne: his previous criticisms of Trump. Byrne criticized Trump and called on him to exit the presidential race in 2016 after the “Access Hollywood” tape emerged, though he said before the election he still planned to vote for him.
“I think we’re going to need somebody there that has always supported this president, is going to continue to support this president, to his efforts at building this wall,” Marsh said. “I don’t think it needs to be another D.C. politician. I think it needs to be a businessman, quite honestly, who has a business background, who understands this president.”
Byrne, in the interview, brushed off that criticism. "I’ve been happy and proud to be a supporter of President Trump ever since he came into office, before he came into office," Byrne said. "If you look at my voting record, I’m one of the strongest supporters of the president."
Meanwhile, the conservative Club for Growth released a poll showing Palmer tied with Byrne in a hypothetical head-to-head primary matchup (the poll did not include other candidates and had 46 percent undecided). David McIntosh, president of the Club, said Palmer would be the strongest candidate and said Byrne is “not a conservative,” calling him a “fake politician.”
Republicans hope to avoid a scenario in which a competitive primary opens a lane for a controversial candidate to slip through the primary without majority support, making the general election much more difficult.
“There’s one guiding light when it comes to Alabama and it’s just to ensure you have an electable nominee,” said Republican strategist Josh Holmes, a top ally of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Holmes called the race a “must win” for the GOP majority.
Palmer has been encouraged to jump in by Republicans statewide and is “seriously considering” the race, according to a person familiar with his deliberations. The person said Palmer remains undecided, but that Byrne’s announcement “doesn’t impact his considerations.”
One potential candidate who appears to be staying out is Rep. Mo Brooks, who lost the GOP primary in the 2017 special. Brooks said Wednesday that while he was not ruling out a bid, but he was unlikely to jump in unless it was clear he’d be a favorite in the primary.
“It would take a seismic political event to get me into the Senate race,” Brooks said.
Democrats are hoping to pull off a seismic Senate event of their own in 2020, seeing a path back to the majority by defeating a handful of Republican incumbents around the country. Democrats are likely to target at least a half-dozen states where Republicans could be vulnerable, including Maine and Colorado, where Trump lost in 2016 and will be on the ballot again next year.
In Colorado, GOP Sen. Cory Gardner already has two Democratic challengers who have previously run for office statewide and several other Democrats are considering bids, signaling confidence in the party that they have a good chance to defeat Gardner.
And Democrats have already begun recruiting top-tier candidates elsewhere. Mark Kelly, the former astronaut and Navy captain and husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords, launched his campaign in Arizona last week and quickly raised more than $1.1 million for his challenge to Republican Sen. Martha McSally.
Kelly may still face a tough Democratic primary against Rep. Ruben Gallego, who is considering a campaign of his own. McSally was appointed to the Senate after losing her race against Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema in November, and Democrats consider the state a top target once again.
It’s still unclear who might step forward for Democrats in two other key Senate states, Maine and North Carolina. But Democrats are also pushing to add Georgia to the list of top-tier battleground races by recruiting Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost Georgia’s gubernatorial race last year, to challenge GOP Sen. David Perdue. Abrams has said she’ll decide in March whether to run
And Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer met recently with former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who is considering a presidential campaign but has not ruled out running for Senate again in Texas after losing narrowly to GOP Sen. Ted Cruz last fall.