WASHINGTON -- The civil war within the GOP is playing out in Tuesday’s special election in Alabama, where mainstream conservatives are working overtime to stop the ascent of a tea-party-style Republican in a primary runoff to fill a vacant congressional seat.
The race provides an early look at GOP divisions heading into the 2014 congressional midterm elections as the Republican establishment, frustrated by the dominance of the party’s hard-right flank, attempts to reassert its role early in the contests.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has come up with more than $200,000 to support Bradley Byrne, a longtime elected official in the Mobile area, who has served as a state senator and college official and was once the GOP candidate for governor.
The establishment-backed endorsements for Byrne have motivated his opponent, Dean Young, to portray himself as battling for the heart of the party’s grass roots. Young, a Ted Cruz-style political novice, said he would never vote to raise the debt limit, bemoans bipartisanship and has suggested that President Obama was born in Kenya.
Polls show the race is close as voter displeasure over Washington helps both camps. Alabama Republican Party Chairman Bill Armistead said Tuesday’s contest could be a cliffhanger.
“The whole nation’s watching you,” Young told voters at a debate last week hosted by the local NBC affiliate.
“I need you to send a message to America … that we don’t want to send another politician up there who’s being supported by the same old people, to do the same old things,” he said. “There won’t be a lot of bipartisanship unless they come over to our way of thinking.”
Byrne countered that voters are “rightly disgusted” with Washington’s dysfunction over Obamacare and the government shutdown, but he asserted they also want leaders who can work together to resolve differences.
“We’ve got far too many people who want to be problem-makers not problem-solvers in Washington,” Byrne said at the debate. “I don’t agree with a lot of the people in Washington and a lot of the things they do. At the end of the day, if we’re not talking to each other, we cant solve many problems.”
A Republican has represented the deeply conservative district since the civil rights era, and Tuesday’s primary victor is all but certain to be the area’s next congressman.
The winner of Tuesday’s runoff will face Democrat Burton LeFlore on Dec. 17 in the race to replace Rep. Jo Bonner, the conservative but temperate six-term Republican who retired to become a vice chancellor at the University of Alabama. Bonner has backed Byrne.
Strategists say Young and Byrne differ more in style than substance. But style matters to GOP elders who have grown weary of the party’s hard-right flank, especially as House GOP renegades have weakened the ability of Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to lead.
The chamber’s top political strategist, Rob Engstrom, parachuted into the Mobile area last week to endorse Byrne, saying Washington “needs proven leaders.”
The once-influential business group is not new to GOP primary battles, but it must now vie for sway among other outside groups, including those aligned with the tea party flank.
“We do see an increasing need to stand up early,” a chamber spokeswoman said.
Support from the business community dwarfs the resources going to Young, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. A political action committee headed by Nevada conservative activist Sharron Angle has spent $65,000 for the upstart, but other influential right-flank groups have not yet been involved in the Alabama race, records show.
J. Pepper Bryars, a former aide to state lawmakers who now writes a political column, said Tuesday’s race will show which style dominates, noting that Young has said he models himself after Cruz, the Republican Senator from Texas and tea party firebrand, while Byrne has suggested his approach would be more in line with Jeff Sessions, the state’s popular GOP senator.
“I simply don’t believe it’s a referendum on the right wing on the party,” he said. “The voters are looking at what style do they want.… At the end of the day they want a conservative.”