Club for Growth looks for Alabama do-over

Courtesy of the Gary Palmer Campaign

The Club for Growth lost out in the first round of Alabama voting, but it’s hoping the second time is a charm in Tuesday’s GOP primary runoff to replace retiring Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.).

After its pick, surgeon Chad Mathis, didn’t advance out of the June primary election, the powerful conservative group quickly threw its support to think tank president Gary Palmer. In the six weeks since, the Club has spent over $250,000 to boost him and attack state Rep. Paul DeMarco. 

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Scant polling of the race has shown Palmer leading DeMarco, and operatives in the state believe he’ll emerge victorious on Tuesday. The winner of the runoff has an easy path to retaining the GOP-heavy suburban Birmingham seat in November. And if Palmer pulls it out, he’ll deliver the Club a coveted win in a year that’s been rocky for conservatives. 

That’s a 180-degree turn from last month, when Palmer barely registered for most national conservative groups, who had unanimously preferred Mathis. 

But after Palmer made it to the runoff with 19 percent to DeMarco’s 33 percent of the vote, the Club began backing Palmer and has aired an attack ad that accuses DeMarco of voting to increase state debt and taxes.

Palmer’s campaign manager, Jon Jones, said the campaign “had said from the very beginning we had hoped everyone involved would remain positive,” but that the campaign welcomed the Club for Growth’s support.

“It was their choice [to go negative], and negative campaigning works. We’re grateful for their support in this race,” he said.

The outside attack gave Palmer room to run a largely positive campaign and build his own narrative as a faith and family advocate and self-avowed “policy geek” who leads the Alabama Policy Institute, up against just another politician.

Alabama GOP strategist Brent Buchanan, who conducted a recent survey of the race that showed Palmer up 30 points over DeMarco, said he believes the race will be tighter than that, but predicts a 10- to 13-point win for Palmer.

He said Palmer appears to be surging because he’s “had a much more compelling personal narrative.”

“The biggest issues in the race have been personal — it’s not been immigration or the economy or anything along those lines, it’s been, what missteps have the candidates taken?” Buchanan said.

With little light between the two candidates on the issues, the race has largely been a clash of personalities. That’s where the Club’s ads may end up putting Palmer over the top and where DeMarco’s early missteps may hurt him.

“The Club for Growth’s attack helps Palmer solely in the fact that it’s kept a ceiling on his favorables,” Buchanan said, noting the candidate’s favorability rating had barely changed since a pre-primary poll. 

Boosting his conservative profile, Palmer’s been endorsed by nearly all of his former primary opponents and a bevy of conservative stars, including former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.

And DeMarco hasn’t been able to shake off an early misstep: an ad he ran attacked Palmer for a decade-old quote that appeared to endorse a tax increase, and it was widely panned in local media as being taken out of context. 

DeMarco stood by the ad, but criticism of it has dogged him throughout the campaign.

Still, Alabama GOP Chairman Bill Armistead cautioned that DeMarco’s attacks could have their intended effect.

“People don’t like negative ads, but everybody says they work,” he said. “Paul has at least four times as many negative ads as the Club for Growth has run. Paul has hit Gary pretty hard. They say they don’t like it, but it usually does tend to sway voters.”

While DeMarco has a solid political operation after two successful runs for his state House seat, Palmer has built up a grassroots network in the area over nearly 25 years heading up the state-based think tank. 

Armistead noted that Palmer’s base “is larger than it would be perceived” because of that experience.

And in a low-turnout election, the GOP chairman warned, the outcome of a race is anyone’s guess.

“I would say it’s going to be a fairly close race. It’s really going to be determined on their bases of support and whether they can turn them out,” he said.