Despite what you might expect, Alabama's fifth congressional district features a tight race between two very different candidates -- with no "enthusiasm gap" among Democrats. In the left corner is Steve Raby, local business leader and former
October 20, 2010

Despite what you might expect, Alabama's fifth congressional district features a tight race between two very different candidates -- with no "enthusiasm gap" among Democrats. In the left corner is Steve Raby, local business leader and former Legislative Aide and Chief of Staff for the late, great U. S. Senator Howell Heflin, last lion of southern liberalism. In the right corner is Mo Brooks, former state legislator, former Madison County District Attorney, current County Commissioner, and local shock-talk radio favorite at WVNN (where Brooks himself once filled-in for none other than Sean Hannity).

I went to Huntsville last week to visit the Democratic and Raby campaign headquarters. What I found there -- and at Steve Raby's rally two nights later -- suggests the major media narratives are not simply incorrect, but actually fly in the face of what has always been commonly accepted electoral practice. As usual, more after the video and a jump:

By now, you may have seen Maddow's excellent takedown of major media narratives for the midterm. What she did not mention, however, is that tea party "enthusiasm" is almost entirely directed at national politics. Tip O'Neil famously opined that all of politics is local, and that is more true than ever in midterm House elections. The Republican national strategy may resonate nationally, but will it be enough to overcome the localized nature of voter decision-making?

If AL-5 is any indicator, the answer may be no.

Alabama's 5th district is entirely within the bounds of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Madison County accounts for 49% of the district's population; the largest employers are government and government-related activity. Yet the district has suffered over the last two years for having Parker Griffith as its representative -- apparently, insulting the Speaker of the House is not a good way to garner earmarks for your district. Who knew? Speaking of earmarks: Republican Mo Brooks recently signed, then un-signed the Republican "Contract from America" because of a provision promising to abstain from earmarks. The problem, of course, is that a district built with federal spending practically relies on earmarks.

As Decatur Daily writer Eric Fleischauer put it this week,

An example of how this national focus plays out is downtown renovation in Decatur. Federal grants — including an earmark from Aderholt — are playing a major part in streetscaping Banks Street and Second Avenue. Most local leaders believe the project could revitalize Decatur’s downtown, improving the city’s economy and increasing jobs.

The tea party view on whether this is an appropriate federal expenditure, expressed by Capps, is unequivocal.

“No,” he said. “I can’t think of any reason why it should be the federal government’s job to be worrying about local renovations. That’s not the federal government’s job.”

If revitalizing Decatur is a good investment, Capps argues, Decatur should pay for it. Federal tax dollars come not just from Decatur, but from people who have no interest in Decatur’s downtown. The federal government has no constitutional authority to expend money for the project, he said, and it’s unfair to ask taxpayers hundreds of miles from Decatur to pay for it.

So how does the quasi-tea party candidate answer the same question, sitting in a Decatur Daily editorial board meeting?

“Urban development is a legitimate function of the federal government,” Brooks said, not citing constitutional authority. “It has been for decades. But we have to evaluate it in a global context. This budget deficit is a serious national security threat.”

It’s a careful answer. It produces no headlines such as, “Brooks would nix downtown renovation.” But his caveat avoids alienating tea-party fans.

Two classic rationalizations of O'Neil's law -- throw the incumbents out, but not my incumbent; stop spending money, except on my district -- don't apply to tea party true-believers. Brooks needs them at the ballot-box, yet he cannot afford to alienate the district's working and middle class voters who understand and welcome their community's utter reliance on earmarking. Meanwhile, Steve Raby faces no such dilemma. Indeed, he speaks of "jobs" without the least trace of shame or uncertainty, for his supporters get this and he knows it.

There aren't many polls available for AL-5, but signs of a Democratic surge (for instance, Joe Sestak's sudden lead over Pat Toomey) are echoed in what I saw at last Friday night's rally for Raby in Huntsville. Maybe the extreme nature of Republican candidates -- and the realities of local politics in America -- are winning out. Maybe the tea party, launched by Rick Santelli and Eric Odom just four weeks after Obama's inauguration, has worn out its nouveau-cachet in the nick of time.

Or maybe Americans have been enthusiastically griping in bad times and are just now starting to pay attention. October has seen Rand Paul and Christine O'Donnell in debate, Joe Miller's goon squad, Allen West's biker gang, and the gift-that-keeps-on-giving in Sharron Angle. Perhaps the "horse race" was never all that serious until the final turn, opinion was always malleable, and the "gap" was always inside the Beltway hivemind. I don't know. But I am sure of one thing: there's no "enthusiasm gap" in Huntsville.

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