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4 Republicans, 4 Democrats in 7th District Congressional race

JAY REEVES

The Associated Press

(AP) — BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – An open congressional seat often translates into a loud fight around election time, but that’s not the case with the race for the 7th District seat being vacated by Democratic Rep. Artur Davis as he runs for governor.

Four Democrats and four Republicans are seeking their party’s nomination to replace Davis in the heavily Democratic district, but the campaign has been so low-key that even the experts don’t have a good feel for who is a front-runner and who’s an also-ran.

The Democratic candidates are talking about economic development and jobs in the state’s poorest region. The Republicans are, too, with a strong dose of conservatism and opposition to President Obama’s health care legislation thrown in.

Without any independent polling on the race, it’s hard to tell how the issues and candidates are playing with voters in a year when most voters’ attention-and donors’ money-is focused on the race for governor.

“It’s as murky as it can be,” said Mark Griffith, a political scientist at the University of West Alabama in Livingston.

On the Democratic side, state Rep. Earl Hilliard Jr. of Birmingham is seeking the seat once held by his father, Earl Hilliard Sr., who was defeated by Davis in the Democratic runoff in 2002. Davis has held the position ever since but is giving it up for the chance to become Alabama’s first black governor.

Two Birmingham attorneys, Terri Sewell and Martha Bozeman, also are seeking the Democratic nomination along with Sheila Smoot, a TV newscaster-turned-Jefferson County commissioner.

Four Republicans are vying for the seat: Don Chamberlain, a businessman and inventor from Selma; Carol F. Hendrickson, a registered nurse from Birmingham; Birmingham-area businessman Chris Salter; and Michele Waller, a retired microbiologist who now works at a hospital in Shelby County.

All the Democratic candidates are black, and all the Republicans are white in a district where 63 percent of the registered voters are black. The 12-county district includes the state’s impoverished Black Belt region in west Alabama and reaches into the poor, industrial neighborhoods of inner-city Birmingham.

Name recognition could either help Hilliard and Smoot around Birmingham, the largest population center in the district, or it could hurt them.

While Earl F. Hilliard Sr. in 1992 became Alabama’s first black member of Congress since Reconstruction, questions about ethics dogged his time in Congress and helped lead to his defeat. Voters know Smoot because of her years on television, but they also might associate her with Jefferson County’s massive budget problems.

Hilliard received the endorsement of the Alabama New South Coalition; Smoot won the backing of the Alabama Democratic Conference. Both groups print sample ballots that can be influential with voters, particularly older ones.

Bozeman was a campaign manager for Davis, and Sewell is the only candidate so far with much of an advertising effort.

The head of political science at the University of Alabama, David J. Lanoue, said two things are virtual certainties in the 7th District: No candidate will win more than 50 percent of the vote in the June 1 primary, forcing runoffs, and the Republicans won’t be a factor come November, no matter which candidate wins the GOP primary.

“This district was drawn for the Democrats. If the Democrats lost the 7th District it would be time to fold up the tent and quit being a party,” he said.