By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. - Alabama political campaigns that were set for primary runoff elections on March 31 have to now adjust their strategies after Gov. Kay Ivey moved the election date to July 14 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Runoff contests include two GOP nomination contests in the state's first and second congressional districts and the heavily watched battle between former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate.
Ivey on Wednesday said delaying the election was the best way to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus while also allowing people to exercise their right to vote.
“The ability to hold free and fair elections is an inherent right as citizens of the United States and the great state of Alabama, but the safety and wellbeing of Alabama citizens is paramount,” Ivey said.
The decision greatly changes the political landscape in an already heated campaign season.
“I can't even begin to put into words how significant it is to go from a four-week campaign to a four-month campaign,” said Seth Morrow, an Alabama political operative who managed the Senate campaign of Congressman Bradley Byrne. Byrne placed third in the March 3 primary and did not make the two-way runoff.
“Particularly one, where I imagine, a lot of people have already spent a significant portion of whatever money they put aside for the runoff.”
Having enough money to compete is a critical task for every campaign, but the extended window almost certainly means the campaigns will have to reevaluate their spending strategies, Morrow said.
“It's not the top down TV spending that becomes an issue. It's the day-to-day: paying your staff, paying your rent, paying for the travel to get the candidate to and from places, that sort of thing is going to all add up.”
The Senate candidates said they agreed with Ivey’s decision to delay the election for the safety of Alabamians.
“I know that Gov. Ivey has considered the health of Alabamians and that she has focused on their best interests in making her decision,” Sessions said in a press release. “The safety and health of Alabamians must take precedence.”
Sessions said his team will maintain a “vigorous campaign” into July and will use the time to press for a debate between the candidates.
"It will be very difficult for Tommy Tuberville to hide from debates for four months,” Sessions said. “He will have to conquer his fears, and face me and the voters.”
Tuberville told ADN that he supports Ivey’s decision but would not say what his plans are for further campaigning.
“I understand Gov. Ivey’s decision to postpone the runoff until July 14 and join her in encouraging all Alabamians to stay safe, be kind to their fellow citizens and follow all guidelines related to the coronavirus,” Tuberville said. “I pray that the current health crisis will be brought under control and that lives will be saved.”
The two candidates finished close in the March 3 primary, with Tuberville earning 33% of the vote to Sessions' 32%. Tuberville recently scored the endorsement of President Donald Trump, a nod of enormous importance in the Trump-loving Alabama GOP, while Sessions has boasted the endorsements of the National Rifle Association, the Alabama Forestry Association, Eagle Forum and several law enforcement officers.
Morrow said that, while the extended time may hurt Tuberville when it comes to avoiding debate questions, it may also help him in capitalizing on Trump’s endorsement.
“The Trump endorsement got lost in the shuffle of the coronavirus, which was probably playing to Sessions’ advantage in the sense that if the election had occurred at the end of this month, how many people would have even known about that that endorsement,” Morrow said.
Republican candidates for Alabama’s First Congressional District also agree with Ivey’s decision to postpone the race but disagree on how campaigning should continue. Mobile County Commissioner Jerry Carl has ceased running campaign ads while his opponent former State Sen. Bill Hightower still is still advertising on digital platforms and plans to tele-campaign instead of “person-to-person contact.”
In the Second District, former state representative Barry Moore said he thought the change in election day was a good way to protect older poll workers.
“Many of our poll workers are ‘seasoned citizens’, and they’re one of the most vulnerable groups,” Moore said. “There’s no way we’d be able to limit the polls to 10 people or keep several feet of distance between them. Having the election on March 31st, we would run the risk of hurting voter turnout and that is an affront to our democratic process.”
Dothan businessman Jeff Coleman, who was the top vote getter in the AL-2 primary, said on Twitter that the action was taken "to protect every citizen."
According to the Secretary of State’s website, eligible Alabamians may continue to register to vote in the runoff election until Monday, June 29.
Secretary of State John Merrill said on Wednesday that those who are concerned about the COVID-19 virus can vote via absentee by checking the sickness box on the absentee application form.
Absentee ballot applications can be found online and must be mailed in by July 9.
Absentee ballot applications that have already been submitted will still be valid for the July 14 election. To check on the status of their application, Alabamians should contact their local absentee election manager.
A copy of a valid photo ID has to be sent in with a completed absentee ballot.
Merrill said in a released statement that this delay will give time for poll workers and election officials to make the necessary changes to ensure proper election-day protocol is followed.
Five other states also have postponed their primaries because of the coronavirus pandemic: Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland and Ohio.
Ivey was asked on Wednesday if this makes her reconsider her stance on allowing no-excuse absentee voting in the state.
“I think you need to have a good reason to vote absentee,” Ivey said. “But surely in this case we can fill in that box that says I may have an illness...We’ve got a box to cover that," Ivey said.
Multiple bills from state representatives have been proposed to allow no-excuse absentee voting but none have been voted out of committee.