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Alabama U.S. House scramble: Roby retirement opens 2nd seat as reapportionment loss looms

U.S. Rep. Martha Roby’s surprise decision to leave Congress further upsets the state’s congressional apple cart

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

MONTGOMERY (CFP) — Republican U.S. Rep. Martha Roby surprised the political world Friday by announcing that she won’t seek re-election in 2020, leaving two of the Yellowhammer State’s seven House seats open during next year’s election.

And as large fields of Republicans scramble in primaries for those seats, they’ll do so with the expectation that one of them could have but a brief stay in Congress, depending on how the political cards fall following the 2020 U.S. Census.

Based on current population projections, Alabama is set to lose one of its seven seats during the next reapportionment. Because of the requirements of the Voting Rights Act, the lost seat is almost sure to be one of the six Republicans now hold, rather than the lone Democratic seat held by U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell in the majority black 7th District.

That will leave six Republicans competing for five seats, which means two of them will have to run against each other if none of them step aside. State legislators will draw new district lines in 2021, which will go into effect for the 2022 election.

In 2020, the 1st District seat, which includes Mobile and Lower Alabama, is open because U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne is running for the U.S. Senate. Roby’s departure now opens the 2nd District seat, which includes Montgomery and the southeastern corner of the state.

U.S. Rep. Martha Roby, R-Alabama

Roby, just 43 and in her fourth term in Congress, was elected in the GOP sweep in 2010. Her decision to leave Congress came just two days after she questioned special counsel Robert Mueller on national television during a House Judiciary Committee hearing on his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

She is one of just 13 Republican women in Congress, the party’s lowest level of female representation in 25 years.

In a statement announcing her retirement, Roby thanked her constituents for the “tremendous privilege and honor” of representing them in Washington but did not offer an explanation for her decision to leave.

“Throughout my five terms in Congress, I have cast every vote with the guiding principle that Alabama always comes first,” she said. “While my name will not be on the ballot in 2020, I remain committed to continuing the fight for Alabama and the people I represent until I cast my last vote on the floor of the United States House of Representatives.“

Roby has faced unexpected competition in her last two re-election bids after she called on Donald Trump to drop out of the 2016 presidential race when the infamous Access Hollywood tape — in which he can be heard bragging about groping women — came to light

In the 2016 general election, Roby was held to less than 50 percent of the vote in her strongly Republican district after nearly 30,000 angry Trump fans wrote in someone else. In 2018, she was challenged in the GOP primary and forced into a runoff, which she won after getting Trump’s support.

Had she run in 2020, Roby would have been on the ballot with Trump — which would have prompted uncomfortable questions about her current and evolving views on the commander-in-chief.

Republicans will be heavily favored to keep both of the open seats in 2020. But after reapportionment, those two freshmen may need legislators to draw a favorable map and then defeat another incumbent in order to survive.

State legislators are required to draw districts that have equal populations. However, because there will be six seats instead of seven, the population of those districts will need to be larger, which could force a wholesale redrawing of the map statewide.

The Voting Rights Act requires the drawing of majority-minority districts whenever possible, which should protect much of Sewell’s district, although it will need to expand.

Federal law does not require a House candidate to actually live in the district where he or she runs. However, running in new territory is much more difficult and counteracts the benefits of incumbency.

Currently, there are four GOP districts centered on the state’s major population centers — Birmingham, Mobile, Montgomery and Huntsville. Two other districts cover more rural areas in eastern and western Alabama.

Given that urban areas of the state, particularly Huntsville, are growing faster than rural areas, the rural districts would seem to be more at risk. However, the two men who represent them — Mike Rogers in the 3rd District and Robert Aderholt in the 4th District — have been in Congress much longer than the other incumbents and could have more pull with state legislators when it comes time to draw new maps.

Aderholt was elected in 1996; Rogers, in 2002.

The 5th District Huntsville seat is held by Mo Brooks, elected in 2010. The 6th District seat metro Birmingham seat is held by Gary Palmer, elected in 2014.

Alabama is one of two Southern states expected to lose seats during the 2020 reapportionment, along with West Virginia. Texas is expected to pick up three seats; Florida, 2; and North Carolina, 1. The other Southern states will retain their current represenation.

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