Governor’s GOP too close to call

Published 12:27 am Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Alabama’s agriculture commissioner overwhelmed a congressman trying to become the first black to win Alabama’s Democratic nomination for governor Tuesday night, while a recount may be necessary to determine who will advance to a Republican runoff in July.

Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks came from behind in the polls and in fundraising to defeat U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, who had spurned traditional civil rights groups and broke with his party by voting against federal health care legislation.

Sparks, who gained the black group’s backing and supported the health care overhaul, was pulling 62 percent to 38 percent with 96 percent of the precincts reporting.

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In the Republican primary, former two-year college chancellor Bradley Byrne secured a runoff spot with 27.9 percent. The second spot was too close to call with Greenville businessman Tim James and Tuscaloosa physician Robert Bentley both at 25.1.

Former Chief Justice Roy Moore ran fourth at 19 percent. Three others — former state official Bill Johnson, sales representative Charles Taylor and cattle farmer James Potts — were bunched at the back with less than 3 percent total.

The top two advance to a runoff July 13. James said it appeared a recount will be necessary to determine who that will be.

“We’re just going to have to ride out the storm,” James said.

Pike County’s votes for governor in both Democratic and Republican races fell mostly in line with state trends.

On the Democratic ticket, Sparks narrowly beat his opponent Davis in Pike County with a 10-vote difference, 662 to 652.

Only 26 percent of Pike County’s voters cast ballots on the Republican ticket.

In the GOP race, Byrne led the county by 33 votes, with 1,080 in his favor. Bentley trailed close behind with 1,047. James fell third with 872 votes, followed by Moore’s 649-vote tally.

Some 73 percent of Pike County’s voters were Republican in Tuesday’s primary, something not typical locally.

In the Democratic race, Davis, a Harvard lawyer, led President Barack Obama to victory in Alabama’s presidential primary in 2008, but he couldn’t muster similar support for himself in a primary with light turnout.

Davis won his congressional seat in 2002 without the support of the major black organizations, and he sought to establish himself as an independent gubernatorial candidate not indebted to any group. But the strategy didn’t work.

Sparks said he had expected the race to be close and was amazed by his big win. “The endorsements made a difference,” he said.

The chairman of the black Alabama Democratic Conference, Joe Reed, said Davis was hurt by ignoring the African-American groups and by voting against the federal health care plan.

“He rejected black voters to go for whites. He acted more like a Republican than a Democrat,” Reed said.

“It may be that our vision was flawed. It may be that I was just not the right candidate,” Davis said in Birmingham.

Rhonda McCarroll, a 44-year-old bus driver from Hoover, said she voted for Obama for president, but she backed Sparks for governor because of his support for expanding and regulating gambling.

“It’s not about race,” she said.

Some black voters said they didn’t trust Davis after he was the only black member of the Congressional Black Caucus to oppose Obama’s health care plan.

“I wouldn’t turn my back on him,” black Navy retiree Sandra Harris of Shelby County said.

The Republican and Democratic candidates spent $16 million to bombard voters with ads and try to cut through two events that dominated the news: the Gulf oil spill threatening the Alabama coast and a federal grand jury investigation of alleged vote buying for gambling legislation.

Most of the money — $4.7 million by Byrne, $4.4 million by James — was spent by the two candidates that polls had indicated were most likely to make the runoff. By comparison, two-term Republican Gov. Bob Riley spent $4.2 million at the same point in the 2006 primary when he was challenged by Moore.

Byrne ran on a platform of fighting the Alabama Education Association to clean up corruption in Alabama’s two-year colleges and get background checks for professors.

“He did a lot of good there and hopefully he can do it for the state,” said Edna Steen, a 63-year-old retired teacher from Montgomery.

James, the son of two-term Gov. Fob James, portrayed himself as a businessman who would bring “common sense” solutions to the problems of state government. He loaned his campaign $2 million and set off an Internet frenzy with an ad saying he would require immigrants to learn English to get an Alabama driver’s license.

Army retiree Robert Justiss of Hoover said he liked James’ youth and his desire to crack down on illegal immigration.

Bentley emerged from the back of the seven-man field with his campaign slogan, “Alabama is hurting and we need a doctor.” He promised that if he elected, he would serve without pay until Alabama reaches full employment.

Denesha McIntyre, a 28-year-old worker laid off from her cake decorating job last year, said she was touched by Bentley’s offer to forgo his salary.

“We need true people, real people. Bentley was the best one I heard,” she said.

Moore, making his second bid for governor, ran a low-key campaign and said little about the Ten Commandments monument that cost him his job as chief justice in 2003 when he refused to obey a federal court order to remove it from the state judicial building’s foyer.

Debbie Jakel of Montgomery, who voted for Byrne, indicated how fluid the race was, with no clear leader going into Tuesday.

“I made up my mind last night, but it took awhile,” she said.