MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Don Odom stood quietly at the back of a conference room Saturday morning at the Renaissance Hotel. Tall and muscular, with a shaved head, goatee and wire-rim glasses, Odom has never been officially involved with the Alabama GOP. The truck driver from Dothan said he hadn’t been sure whether to accept an invitation to attend the state Republican Party’s annual winter gathering.
“Used to be, I’d wake up every four years and go vote, then I’d go back home and go back to sleep for four years,” Odom explained. For the past year, however, he has been politically wide awake. He recently became chairman of the Wiregrass Patriots, one of Alabama’s Tea Party groups that have turned up the heat on politicians in the state.
According to a Gallup poll released last week, Alabama is already the most conservative state in the union, but it’s not yet conservative enough for grassroots activists like Odom. While last weekend’s Tea Party convention in Nashville was making national headlines, the real political impact of the grassroots movement was evident among Republicans who gathered Friday and Saturday in Montgomery.
“People are fired up,” said state GOP executive director John Ross, adding that his party won two special elections in 2009 and has high hopes for a breakthrough in this year’s mid-terms. Those who don’t follow Alabama politics are often surprised to learn that Democrats still control the state’s legislature, Ross said.
“The legislature is their last stronghold,” he said. “We feel like this is our shot.”
In a year that has already seen Republican Scott Brown capture the Massachusetts Senate seat held for decades by Ted Kennedy, GOP hopes are high here.
“Alabama is the reddest state in the union and we’re going to make it even redder,” state party chairman Mike Hubbard declared at Friday’s Ronald Reagan dinner, which drew a record 700 attendees at $100 per plate.
Making this red state redder means making moderate “Blue Dog” Democrats an endangered species in November. The prime congressional target for Alabama’s Republicans is Rep. Bobby Bright, whose 2nd District encompasses the Wiregrass region where Odom’s group has become a force to be reckoned with, as has the Wetumpka Tea Party, led by Eric and Becky Gerritson.
The anti-establishment mood represented by the Tea Party movement is a factor in the Republican crusade to unseat Bright, who won the 2nd District seat by a narrow margin in 2008 and whose re-election race is rated a “toss-up” by the Cook Political Report.
Montgomery City Council member Martha Roby, who announced as a GOP candidate last May, was cited by Roll Call as a recruiting success story for the National Republican Congressional Committee. Roby raised $125,000 in the six weeks after she announced her candidacy, but being the handpicked choice of the national GOP establishment may prove more curse than blessing in a year when Republicans are in the midst of a populist insurgency. Many grassroots conservatives are suspicious of the party insiders who disastrously backed Dede Scozzafava last year in the New York 23rd District special election, and whose support of Charlie Crist in this year’s Florida Senate primary sparked a sharp backlash.
Montgomery businessman Rick Barber announced last month that he would also seek the Republican nomination in the 2nd District, bringing his own Tea Party activism into the campaign. A 34-year-old former Marine sergeant and pool-hall owner, Barber was among those who challenged Bright to discuss President Obama’s proposed health-care legislation in a town-hall meeting during the congressional recess last August, an invitation that Bright repeatedly declined.
“Bobby Bright doesn’t like town-hall meetings,” Barber said Saturday in his presentation to a meeting of 2nd District Republican officials, telling the story of one August confrontation. “We got a large group of senior citizens together.… About 40 or 50 of us showed up at his office one morning. Bobby Bright was there.… He snuck out the back door — didn’t even come out and acknowledge that all these seniors had showed up to voice their concern about the health-care bill. That’s not leadership.”
In addition to owning Déjà Vu Billiards in Montgomery, which has become a regular meeting place for Tea Party activists, Barber is a computer technology consultant whose business experience informs his approach to politics.
“I’m a big believer in simplicity,” he explained Saturday, while driving to Millbrook in Elmore County to shake hands at the town’s pre-Mardi Gras parade. “Confusion is the biggest barrier to making decisions.… If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it — those are things you learn in business, and those are things practiced in the military.”
Despite Bright’s claims to be conservative, the Democrat has been “voting with Nancy Pelosi 70 percent of the time,” Barber told the district Republican officials. Promising to “take a stand” and “draw a line in the sand,” Barber said “that Blue Dog label has got to go.”
Barber isn’t the only military veteran with Tea Party support seeking a congressional seat in Alabama this year. In the state’s 5th District, former Navy aviator Les Phillip is challenging Rep. Parker Griffith, whose switch from Democrat to Republican made headlines last month.
A native of Trinidad who came to the United States with his parents when he was 8, Phillip could become the first black Republican elected to Congress from the Deep South since Reconstruction. His message of American exceptionalism and limited government draws enthusiastic applause at Tea Party events and has earned the endorsement of Mike Huckabee.
As with Barber’s primary contest with Roby in the 2nd District, however, Phillip finds himself contending against the GOP establishment. The NRCC is pledged to support Griffith, as a spokesman for the campaign committee explained last month: “Parker Griffith is now a member of the Republican conference, and by definition the NRCC is the political arm of the House political conference. He is in effect a member of the NRCC.”
Campaigns by political newcomers like Barber and Phillip show how energized Alabama Republicans are in 2010, according to the state party’s executive director. “We’ve got so many people who have never run for office before,” Ross said. “They’re saying, ‘I’ve got to step up and do my part.'”
Odom is also stepping up to do his part as a Tea Party activist. The 47-year-old Dothan trucker explained that, before being inspired by Fox News host Glenn Beck to join the movement, he hadn’t considered himself responsible for the failures of government.
“I always said, ‘It’s the politicians’ fault,’ but it’s not,” Odom said. “It’s ‘We the People.’ It’s our fault, because we let it happen.”