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First take/early indicator

A week away from the Iowa caucuses, a lot of people other than presidential candidates are wondering what effect the presidential race may have on races down below.

That’s true in both parties, where discussion about exactly that topic has ramped up as talk of which candidate will do their party the most good, or harm, roars on.

Here’s a report in the Daily Kos site about a race in Alabama that may suggest an early indicator of things to come. – rs

Over at the National Journal, Kimberly Railey profiles a March 1 GOP primary we haven’t talked much about. In this solidly Republican Montgomery-area seat, third-term Rep. Martha Roby faces an intra-party challenge from Becky Gerritson, who heads a local tea party group.

On the surface, it doesn’t look like there’s much to see here. Unlike Eric Cantor, the tea party’s most famous primary victim, Roby actually appears to be taking her race seriously. The incumbent raised a solid $310,000 over the last quarter of 2015, and she holds $884,000 on hand. While Gerritson brought in a non-trivial $105,000, she burned through most of it and only has $31,000 in the bank. And while a few minor tea party-friendly groups have endorsed Gerritson, major organizations like the Club For Growth haven’t gotten involved yet. It’s very hard to beat a scandal-free incumbent in a primary, and Gerritson just doesn’t look like she has what it takes to defeat Roby.

However, there’s another level to this race that could make things a bit more interesting than it seems. Alabama is one several states that will hold its downballot primary on the same day as its presidential primary. Normally, incumbents like Roby benefit from this arrangement. Presidential contests tend to draw out more casual voters who don’t care much about the other races on the ballot, and will often just select the incumbent because it’s the name they recognize.

But as Roll Call‘s Eli Yokley recently noted, there’s a good chance that Ted Cruz and Donald Trump will turn out voters who utterly despise the GOP establishment and will lash out at their incumbents. Cruz and Trump should do well especially in Deep Southern states like Alabama: In 2012, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich took a combined 64 percent of the vote, while Mitt Romney only won 29 percent.

Still, in the words of Dr. Horrible, sometimes there’s a third, even deeper level, and that one is the same as the top surface one. Even in this caffeinated age, most tea party candidates still fail to unseat establishment Republicans, especially without any major outside help. While ultra-conservatives across the country will try to replicate Dave Brat’s victory over Cantor, Cantor was the only congressional Republican to lose renomination to a tea partier last cycle. Most Republicans have learned to take their primaries seriously, and they’re often very good about portraying themselves as solid conservatives who are fighting the good fight against liberals.

Ultimately, it’s very difficult to see Gerritson prevailing on March 1, at least without help from well-funded groups like the Club for Growth. But this contest is worth keeping an eye on just in case. Roby is a bit of a canary in a coal mine: If she wins without much trouble, it’ll be a good indication that the crazy presidential primary isn’t about to cost GOP incumbents renomination. But if Roby has an unexpectedly tough time or even loses, a lot of Republican congressmen are going to get nervous very fast.

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