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Can You Spot the Differences?

Seven Alabama Republicans are hard to tell apart.

May 19, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 34 • By MARIA SANTOS
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Birmingham, Ala. 
No House district in the country is more Republican than Alabama’s 6th, where the retirement of Spencer Bachus opens the seat for the first time in 22 years. The district voted 74 percent for Mitt Romney, so whoever captures a majority in the seven-way Republican primary in June—or, in the likely event no one does, whoever wins the runoff in July—can expect to be moving to Washington. 

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We’re betting on the guy in the white shirt and gray suit.

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This is one of the wealthiest areas in the Deep South, home to the exclusive Shoal Creek Golf and Country Club, which still banned African-American members as recently as 1990. Its hosting of the PGA Championship that year caused a national scandal that eventually pried open its doors. Even now, the 6th District is 81 percent white, while the neighboring 7th is 64 percent black. 

And the crowded GOP primary may be the country’s most expensive. Four candidates have each raised around or over $400,000. Predictably, all seven are conservative white males who agree on most issues. 

There’s Gary Palmer, founder of the influential Alabama Policy Institute, as well as a national network of conservative state think tanks, the State Policy Network. At API he was instrumental in defeating a referendum to legalize the lottery, and successfully fought Republican governor Bob Riley’s proposed $1 billion in tax increases. In college he was a walk-on for the University of Alabama’s football team under coach Bear Bryant.

Palmer says he struggles to answer briefly in debates “because I’m the nerd .  .  . but nobody questions or even intimates that anybody else knows more about the policy than me.” During our interview he looks over my shoulder and corrects me when I note that he helped reduce the death tax from 55 percent to 30 percent—it should be 35 percent. He’s known as serious but somewhat humorless. 

Will Brooke, a wealthy venture capitalist, aired a TV ad in which he uses Obamacare regulations for target practice. He’s fond of whipping a rumpled Constitution out of his jacket pocket. “I do have a little bit of a libertarian streak in me,” he says. “I’m a big Adam Smith guy.” He opposes drug legalization and gay marriage, but supports leaving those issues to the states. He was for granting illegal immigrants legal status short of citizenship until Laura Ingraham publicly shamed him into signing an anti-immigration pledge. He considers himself a skilled negotiator who would “go work behind the scenes, quietly” in Congress.

Paul DeMarco, a state representative for nine years, is the kind of politician who looks deep into your eyes and thanks you for your question. Since five of his opponents have never held political office, he stresses his experience. “I don’t need someone to teach me on the job,” he says, “because I think I’ve earned that reputation.” He would prioritize cutting oppressive EPA regulations. His $850,000 in campaign funds top Brooke’s $739,000. 

Chad Mathis, an orthopedic surgeon from Indiana, sticks out as the only candidate without a thick Alabama accent. He moved here around 2006, and almost a third of his donations come from outside the state. He bristles when I ask if not being a native might be a handicap, responding that his grandfather is from Alabama. He’s been endorsed by the right-wing website RedState, Senator Mike Lee, and FreedomWorks. He’s also backed by several members of the House “doctor caucus,” which he hopes to join. 

Mathis’s campaign is the most negative. He ran a radio ad attacking four of his opponents—Scott Beason, Brooke, DeMarco, and Palmer—saying, “They’re called the ‘Gang of Four’ ” and “they’ll fit right in” in Washington. Mathis, who came up with the phrase “Gang of Four,” doesn’t regret running it. Palmer thinks he should, because Alabamians “really don’t take kindly to someone moving down and staying here a little while and then deciding they want to be our congressman .  .  . and then attacking people that have been involved in their community almost their entire lifetime.” Governor Mike Pence of Indiana, Mathis’s home state, endorsed Palmer. 

State senator Scott Beason has been in the legislature for 16 years, although he says he doesn’t enjoy it there. He challenged Bachus in 2012 and lost 61-28 percent. He also led the effort to pass an immigration law stricter than Arizona’s. He criticizes his opponents’ political inexperience, saying, “I think it’s fair to ask, ‘Well, what have you been doing? Have you been fighting these fights at all?’ ”

Beason is blunt, which gets him in trouble. Recently he called a textbook “anti-American” for asking students to compare Arthur Miller’s account of the Salem witch trials in his play The Crucible with the 1950s McCarthy investigations. Miller wrote the play to criticize McCarthyism. “All I said is, ‘Let’s just be balanced,’ ” Beason insists. He was once caught on tape jokingly calling black people “aborigines.” “I was defended by members of the black caucus in the legislature,” he responds. He brings up the rear on fundraising with about $16,000.

Tom Vignuelle is a cattle farmer and owns Royal Bedding Manufacturing, Inc. He thinks he has experience the other business candidates don’t. “Ask them the last time they filed their sales tax. Ask them the last time they did receivables and payables.” He’s backed by a few small Tea Party groups and likes to talk about reforming the Federal Reserve. He’s low on funds, at about $45,000.

And finally there’s Robert Shattuck. The other candidates smirk politely at his name. Shattuck refuses to answer policy questions, which he calls “academic.” What he will say is that “Congress is not working” and nothing else should be discussed. He has zero funds and writes so prolifically on his email list and blog—al6thcongdist-ihaveuntiljan13.blogspot.com—that a typical comment, from a U.S. News reporter, is, “I want off of this list.” 

On a Monday afternoon in Birmingham’s largest suburb, all seven candidates come to Hoover High School—renowned for its nationally ranked football team—to debate. But the questions barely matter: All of the candidates (except Shattuck) support essentially the same things. They even recite many of the same tropes. Several “married their high-school sweetheart,” most have “lived here their whole life,” several “were the first in their family to go to college.” 

So what will decide the race? Money? Beason’s fundraiser, Mike Rubino, doesn’t think so—although with Beason trailing in funds, he has an interest in thinking that. He’s working campaigns in several states, but says this one is different. He splits the district between the wealthy Homewood/Vestavia/Mountain Brook neighborhoods and the more rural surrounding areas. “You have Will Brooke and Paul DeMarco who are centrally located here,” Rubino says, “and they raise so much money. .  .  . But does that necessarily mean that if you turn out all of Mountain Brook, you can win this race?”

In Alabama’s last governor’s race, Bradley Byrne lost to Robert Bentley in the Republican runoff despite vastly outspending him. Beason says people here aren’t swayed by things money can buy, like TV ads. “They’ll be talking to people at church or on the baseball field and all that kind of stuff.” 

With the most recent poll, conducted for the Mathis campaign, showing 44 percent of voters undecided and several candidates clustered, predictions would be foolhardy. What is crystal clear, though, is why this race is crowded. Whoever wins stands an excellent chance of being in Congress a long time.

Maria Santos is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.

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