In Alabama, Rep. Bobby Bright avoids perils of anti-government mood

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By Amy Gardner
Tuesday, July 13, 2010

MONTGOMERY, ALA. -- For a first-term Democrat in a solidly Republican district, Rep. Bobby N. Bright did something curious on a recent weekday morning while speaking at a Kiwanis Club breakfast: He talked about the goodness of federal spending.

Even more curious, perhaps, is that his audience didn't mind.

Bright, a dry-witted former mayor of Montgomery, looks on paper like one of the most vulnerable Democrats in Congress, with a winning margin in 2008 of just 1,700 ballots, a district that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) took in that year's presidential election with 63 percent of the vote, and a constituency deeply unhappy with President Obama and Democrats in Congress.

But Bright, 57, is well liked in southeastern Alabama's 2nd Congressional District. In the most recent polls, he has a double-digit lead over the Republicans vying to face him in the fall.

And he's running ahead without riding the anti-government wave sweeping the nation. In some ways, he's practicing the opposite: rattling off the schools, bridges, unpaved roads and sewer systems that need funding; celebrating the jobs that two big local military installations bring; promoting earmarks for agricultural research. It's a reminder that in some places, even among conservative voters, "government" and "spending" are not necessarily dirty words.

"Keep in mind, Alabama is a poor state," Bright told a noontime crowd last week at Wetumpka City Hall, about half an hour north of Montgomery. "I will never turn my back on resources communities need just because a political party has asked me to do so for political reasons."

Elsewhere in the nation, similarly conservative but struggling areas offer parallel political dynamics. In western Pennsylvania, for instance, Democrat Mark Critz overcame a powerful anti-Washington tide in May to win a special House election to replace the late John P. Murtha, whose prowess in securing earmarks had been widely hailed across the economically depressed region.

The test is yet to come in Kentucky, where Republican Senate candidate and "tea party" favorite Rand Paul has talked of weaning the grindingly poor eastern off its dependence on government. His Democratic opponent, state Attorney General Jack Conway, has said that Paul's rejection of earmarks would hurt Kentucky.

National Republicans seem to recognize the peril of such contrasts. Their chosen candidate to challenge Bright, Montgomery City Council member Martha Roby, has avoided direct critiques of him and has framed her campaign almost entirely against the policies of Washington. Roby, 33, will face tea party candidate Rick Barber in a runoff Tuesday.

Barber, 35, who gained national attention for a TV ad in which Abraham Lincoln compares federal spending policies to slavery, has gone after Bright more directly for not supporting a repeal of the health-care overhaul and for being part of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's majority. If he scores an upset Tuesday, the fall race will shape up more clearly as a referendum on Bright.

Litmus tests

Bright's popularity among conservatives is about more than earmarks. A member of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition of House Democrats, Bright passes many of the right's litmus tests, opposing new taxes and spending, and voting against the stimulus package, the budget, the health-care bill and even the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, whose namesake is an Alabaman.

"My values are your values," Bright told the Kiwanis breakfast crowd at the Eastside Grille on the eastern edge of Montgomery. "I'm pro-life. I'm pro-gun. I'm pro-military. I'm pro-family. I'm a Christian and proud of it, and I won't ever change."

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